NEW YORK - The Obama administration edged close to direct, high-level talks with Iran's new government on Monday, with Secretary of State John Kerry slated to meet his Iranian counterpart this week and the White House weighing the risks and rewards of an encounter between President Barack Obama and Iran's president, Hasan Rouhani.
An Obama-Rouhani exchange on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly would mark the first meeting at that high level for the two nations in more than 30 years. Such talks could signal a turning point in U.S.-Iranian relations - but also could be seen as a premature endorsement for a new Iranian government that has yet to answer key questions about the future of its disputed nuclear program.
Obama advisers said no meeting was scheduled. But they added that the U.S. planned to take advantage of diplomatic opportunities while in New York and indicated they were not leaving a possible encounter between Obama and Rouhani to chance.
President Barack Obama meets with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in New York, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Obama is in New York and is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow.
"I don't think that anything would happen by happenstance on a relationship and an issue that is this important," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president to New York.
The election of Rouhani, a moderate cleric, has led to speculation about possible progress on Iran's nuclear impasse with the U.S. Particularly intriguing to American officials are Rouhani's assertions that his government has "complete authority" in nuclear negotiations. That would be a marked change from previous governments and their relationship with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The U.S. and its allies have long suspected that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists its nuclear activities are only for producing energy and for medical research.
American officials say Rouhani's change in tone is driven by the Iranian public's frustration with crippling economic sanctions levied by the U.S.
But it is still unclear whether Iran is willing to take the steps the U.S. is seeking in order to ease the sanctions, including curbing uranium enrichment and shutting down the underground Fordo nuclear facility.
State Department officials said Kerry would seek to answer that question on Thursday when new Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joins nuclear talks between the U.S. and five other world powers. Zarif's participation, which was announced Monday, sets up the first meeting in six years between an American secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister, though it's unclear whether the two men will break off from the group and hold separate one-on-one talks.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, told reporters after meeting with Zarif that she saw "energy and determination" for talks to move ahead with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
On Twitter, the U.S.-educated Zarif called his meeting with Ashton "positive," and he added, "Need new start under new circumstances."
The prospect of bilateral talks between Kerry and Zarif did little to tamp down speculation about a meeting between the U.S. and Iranian presidents, who both arrived in New York on Monday. The most obvious opportunity for a direct exchange appears to be at a U.N. leaders' lunch both are scheduled to attend on Tuesday.
But a lunch meeting would put Obama in the risky position of engaging Rouhani before knowing what the Iranian leader will say during his highly anticipated address to the U.N. General Assembly. Rouhani is scheduled to speak late Tuesday afternoon, while the U.S. president will address the U.N. in the morning.
No American president has met with an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution that led to the ouster of the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. However, U.S. secretaries of state and Iranian foreign ministers have had occasional encounters. The most recent was in 2007, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice exchanged pleasantries with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki during a meeting in Egypt.
Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official, said Obama should be wary of making a bold diplomatic gesture with so much about Rouhani's intentions still unknown.
"They have to be clear that this is someone they wouldn't need to dissociate themselves from shortly after," said Maloney, now a Middle East fellow at the Brookings Institution. "When you're talking about Iran, I think that's almost impossible to do."
Anthony Cordesman, a foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that a leaders meeting does come with risks. But he urged the White House to consider the positive message it would send to Iranian moderates if Obama extended a hand to their newly elected leader.
"It's absolutely vital that you take this window of opportunity," Cordesman said. "Rebuffing Rouhani without actually listening to him is scarcely going to empower moderates in Iran."
In Tehran, meanwhile, Iran said Monday it had freed 80 prisoners arrested in political crackdowns. That could offer another diplomatic boost for the country's new president as he arrives for the U.N. meeting.
The announcement of the mass release came just hours after Hasan Rouhani departed for New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly, where he is expected to seek Western pledges to restart stalled negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Back in Washington, senators urged Obama to reaffirm at the U.N. that, despite Rouhani's recent overtures, the U.S. will not accept a nuclear-capable Iran. In two separate letters, top Democrats and Republicans also called on the president to make clear that the U.S. will continue tough sanctions against Tehran.
"Now is not the time to let up on this pressure," Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in one letter to Obama. "Removal of any existing sanctions must depend on Iran's halting of its nuclear program. Conversely, the continuation or expansion of its nuclear activities will only lead to more sanctions led by the United States and our friends and allies."