President Obama and the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, have exchanged letters in recent weeks, and U.S. officials have hinted that the two leaders may have a fleeting encounter this week in New York, where they are both scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly. U.N. headquarters has often been the scene of symbolically significant handshakes and other ostensibly unscheduled meetings.
“We have no meeting scheduled with President Rouhani, though as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we don’t rule out that type of engagement,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Monday.
The meeting between Kerry and Zarif will be the first between a secretary of state and Iran’s foreign minister during the Obama administration.
Even before the first meetings were held, there were new signs of the political difficulties the Obama administration faces in selling a possible nuclear deal in Washington. Rouhani’s recent diplomatic overtures have been met by deep skepticism in Congress, among Democrats as well as Republicans.
Echoing similar statements by Israeli officials, key lawmakers warned against any easing of the economic sanctions imposed against Iran in the past three years.
“Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C) wrote in a letter to Obama. “The test of Iranian seriousness must be verifiable action by Iran to terminate its nuclear weapons program.”
In a separate letter to the White House, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (R-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for a hard line on sanctions, saying Iran should not get any breaks until it takes “meaningful and verifiable actions to halt its nuclear activities.”
The tough language from lawmakers has heightened concerns among some foreign policy experts that the Obama administration may lack the political maneuvering room to negotiate a nuclear deal with the Iranians. At a time when Iran appears to be showing new flexibility, there is serious concern over whether the White House is capable of reciprocating, given the prominent role of Congress in controlling economic sanctions, said George Perkovich, an Iran expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“We know that, for anything to work, there has to be serious sanctions relief,” Perkovich said. “Can the president deliver? At the moment, he can’t even get a budget out of Congress.”
Congress approved many of the toughest sanctions with margins above 90 percent, and some prominent lawmakers are pushing for still more economic pressure.
The standoff over Iran’s nuclear program has gone through a series of wild ups and downs since 2002, when satellite pictures captured two clandestine nuclear sites in Arak and Natanz, raising suspicions that Iran was secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
The Iranian government has denied that it is trying to build a bomb, saying that it needs to enrich uranium to expand the country’s energy-producing capacity. Successive efforts to strike a bargain that would place Iran’s nuclear program under greater scrutiny in exchange for an easing of international sanctions, and the supplying of Tehran with trade and energy concessions, have foundered.
In New York, U.S. allies are upbeat this week about Rouhani’s recent diplomatic outreach. Ashton told reporters at U.N. headquarters that Zarif would attend a previously scheduled meeting Thursday of the “E-3 plus 3” — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — that has been striving for years to negotiate a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
Ashton said her discussion with Zarif focused primarily on Iran’s plan to resume talks on its nuclear program. She said they did not discuss any steps Iran was willing to take to reassure the outside world that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.
“We didn’t talk about the details of what we should do. The purpose of this meeting was to establish how we would go forward,” she said. “In terms of whether we are on the verge of a breakthrough, I would put it like this: I was struck by the energy and the determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me.”
A State Department official said the meeting Thursday would be important to understanding Iran’s intentions.
“There was a clear sense that this opportunity with the Iranian foreign minister will give our ministers a sense of their level of seriousness and whether they are coming with concrete new proposals,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomacy.
Warrick reported from Washington. Anne Gearan at the United Nations contributed to this report.