An exchange of letters between Barack Obama and the Iranian president, Hassan Rowhani, has set the stage for a possible meeting between the two men at the UN next week in what would be the first face-to-face encounter between a US and Iranian leader since Iran’s 1979 revolution.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, is also due to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the UN general assembly meeting in New York, adding to guarded optimism that the June election of Rowhani, a Glasgow-educated moderate, and his appointment of a largely pragmatic cabinet, has opened the door to a diplomatic solution to the 11-year international standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Tehran took the Foreign Office by surprise, tweeting on Rowhani’s English-language feed that the president would also be prepared to meet Hague, something the UK had not even requested.
“Tehran has responded positively to UK’s request. President Rowhani’s meeting w/William J Hague on the sidelines of UNGA has been confirmed,” the tweet said. “We would be happy to meet,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said, “but we have had nothing formal from Tehran about it.”
Diplomats said the tweet reflected the new Iranian government’s eagerness to make diplomatic headway on the nuclear issue, which has been at an impasse for several years. A Hague meeting with either Rowhani or Zarif could clear the way to restoring full diplomatic ties, which have not existed since the British embassy in Tehran was ransacked by a mob in November 2011.
In a television interview aired on Sunday, Obama made clear that there was a diplomatic opening with Iran, not only over the nuclear question but also over Syria. He confirmed earlier reports that he and Rowhani had “reached out” to each other, exchanging letters.
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iran diplomacy, said “I think there is a chance [of a meeting]. It would be a strong political push for movement. If Obama got involved, it would be the infusion of political will needed to reach an agreement.
Parsi added if Obama was to meet Rowhani it was likely to be an orchestrated encounter.