(WASHINGTON) — Following a week of speculation and rising expectations, White House officials on Monday seemed to downplay the prospect of a one-on-one meeting between President Obama and his Iranian counterpart.
“We are hoping to engage with the Iranian government at a variety of levels, provided they will follow through on their commitment to address the international community’s concerns over their nuclear program,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One.
The caveat regarding Iran’s nuclear program is a new twist in the administration’s rhetoric after days of suggesting openness to meet without hinting at a prerequisite.
The White House has not ruled out a less formal encounter between Obama and Rouhani, including a handshake, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly during the day on Tuesday. The most likely opportunity for such a greeting would be a midday luncheon hosted by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“I don’t think anything will happen by happenstance on a relationship on an issue that is this important,” Rhodes said. No American president has met one-on-one with an Iranian head of state since 1977.
Meanwhile, the administration quietly announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in New York this week — a meeting that would be the highest-level contact between the two governments in decades.
The State Department said the meeting will take place Thursday afternoon. Kerry and Zarif will also meet as part of a larger group — the so-called P5+1 — seeking to reach an agreement over Iran’s contested nuclear program.
“We hope that the new Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation,” said Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“We remain ready to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously. Secretary Kerry welcomes the foreign minister’s commitment to a substantive response and to his agreement to meeting in the short term with permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany coordinated by EU High Representative Ashton to discuss the nuclear program,” she said.
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