The United States and Iran moved warily toward a new stage in their relationship on Tuesday as leaders from both countries signalled a fresh willingness to negotiate their disputes.
U.S. President Barack Obama noted the more moderate tone emerging from the Iranian leadership in recent weeks and said that he had instructed America's most senior diplomat to pursue talks with Iran over its nuclear program.
"Conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable," said Mr. Obama in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. "The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested."
Mr. Obama's overture found a response on Tuesday afternoon in a speech by Iran's newly elected president, Hasan Rouhani. Over the past month, Mr. Rouhani has embarked on an unprecedented charm offensive, seemingly with the tacit approval of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In his address to the General Assembly, Mr. Rouhani declared that "there is no issue or dossier that cannot be resolved through reliance on hope and prudent moderation," including the question of Iran's nuclear program.
To that end, he said that Iran was prepared to "engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence."
Mr. Obama acknowledged the deep distrust between the two countries yet sounded guardedly optimistic. "I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight," he said. But resolving the issue of Iran's nuclear program "can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship."
In a sweeping address that lasted nearly 45 minutes, Mr. Obama offered a broad explanation of his administration's policies toward the Middle East, and challenged the international community to mount a forceful response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
He called upon the UN Security Council to verify and enforce the recent agreement to destroy Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. "If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws," he said. "If we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century."
Mr. Obama made a concerted effort to outline American objectives in an attempt to defuse sources of tension. On Syria, for instance, he told the assembled diplomats that a resolution of the civil war is not a zero-sum endeavour. "There's no Great Game to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people," he said.
On Iran, he pointed out that the United States is not seeking regime change in the country, and respects its right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran has stated that it is not developing a nuclear weapon, but has obstructed international attempts to verify such assertions.
In his 30-minute address, Mr. Rouhani asserted that nuclear weapons have no place in Iran's security doctrine and that its nuclear program must pursue "exclusively peaceful purposes." He added that his nation did not seek to increase tensions with the United States.
While the address was far less inflammatory than those of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whose speeches regularly prompted walkouts by Western diplomats – it had flashes of combativeness. Mr. Rouhani said that sanctions "are violent, pure and simple; whether called smart or otherwise, unilateral or multilateral." He also said he hoped that the U.S. leadership would "refrain from following the short-sighted interest of war-mongering pressure groups," a not-so-veiled reference to pro-Israel groups.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper cautioned Mr. Obama about pursuing diplomacy with Iran.
"I certainly would not fault President Obama and our allies from trying," Mr. Harper said Tuesday, speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill.
"But my sincere advice would be when it comes to the government of Iran, that we should carefully monitor deeds far more than words."
Mr. Rouhani's speech was "carefully constructed not to open him up to too much criticism from the hardliners at home, but to leave enough of an opening to begin negotiations," said Suzanne DiMaggio, an Iran expert at The Asia Society, a New York-based non-profit organization. "Now is where the hard work really begins."
In the coming days, Mr. Rouhani's job is "to present a new face of Iran after eight years of damage inflicted by his predecessor," said Ms. DiMaggio.
Over the rest of the week, Mr. Rouhani will hold bilateral talks, conduct private meetings and speak at a dinner for the local Iranian community. On Thursday, he will give a public speech and take questions from an audience of scholars and businesspeople at The Asia Society.
Last year, during the annual UN meetings in New York, Mr. Obama was running for re-election. In full campaign mode, he spent only a day in New York and declined to hold one-on-one meetings with world leaders.
This year, by contrast, he had a full diplomatic schedule. But domestic politics weren't very far away. Late Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Obama made a brief trip to a midtown hotel where one of his predecessors, Bill Clinton, was presiding over the annual conclave hosted by his foundation.
There the two presidents took to the stage to discuss Mr. Obama's signature achievement, the law reforming the U.S. health-care system. Some of its key elements are now being implemented, provoking a furious response from the law's opponents.
Mr. Obama defended the law against such attacks, arguing the changes were long overdue. "Do we want to continue to live in a society where we have the most inefficient health-care system on earth?" Mr. Obama said.
"Is that the kind of society we aspire to? I think the answer is no."
With a report from The Canadian Press