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Iran's President Rouhani To Address U.N. For 1st Time


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Let's talk through President Obama's speech just now at the United Nations. The president addressed the annual meeting of the General Assembly, a big room full of diplomats and world leaders. He called for action to enforce the removal of Syria's chemical weapons, and he also spoke of negotiations with Iran, among other issues. NPR's Michele Kelemen is at the United Nations. She was listening in.

And, Michele, I wanted to bring you on just because you have listened to so many speeches on these topics, and let's start with Iran. What, if anything, that the president said about reaching out to Iran caught your ear?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, it's interesting, you know. I mean, he's talked about the need to - he's had an open hand to Iran since coming to office, but things really changed this year with the arrival of Hassan Rouhani as president. President Obama says he was elected on a more moderate course, and that this should be tested. So you heard President Obama in this speech today talking about how, yes, the deep - there are deep suspicions between the U.S. and Iran, but this may be a chance to overcome this.

And he even mentioned, Steve - which I found really interesting - that, you know, the Iranians have long complained about America's role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

KELEMEN: So there was, you know, a lot of openness to get over a lot of these deep-seated suspicions.

INSKEEP: Now, that is such an interesting detail to focus on, because we were wondering, has he said that before? Has any American president acknowledged that before? And one of our colleagues is looking back. It seems that President Obama did say something about this in 19 - or, rather, in 2009, but the time was not right, then, apparently, to talk to Iran. Do things feel different now?

KELEMEN: Well, it is an interesting moment, here. And we're going to hear later this afternoon from President Rouhani himself. His foreign minister, who's the former Iranian ambassador to the U.N., has already been behind the scenes, working here. He's been meeting with different foreign ministers. And he's going to meet in a group setting on Thursday with Secretary of State John Kerry. That was another announcement that President Obama said in this speech, was that he's asked Kerry to pursue the possibility of nuclear talks with Iran. Now, these aren't going to be one-on-one meetings, necessarily. This is going to be in a group. They call it the permanent five Security Council Members plus Germany, the P5+1. That's the group that's been negotiating with Iran over its suspect nuclear program.

INSKEEP: You know, there's been a lot of focus on the style of this, whether President Obama will meet President Rouhani at some point. But I want to ask you, Michele, about the substance. Really complicated issue, here. The U.S. is trying to get Iran to restrain its nuclear program. Iran wants the United States to back off on sanctions in some way. When you talk with diplomats, experts, anyone you talk with, do people think they see the outlines of a solution that could be negotiated if the two sides were only able to overcome their mistrust?

KELEMEN: I think it's too early to tell. I mean, everyone's saying that the words of the Iranian officials have to be put to the test right now. These are going to be very difficult talks. But you also did hear Obama saying today that the U.S. respects Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. Iran's always said that its program is peaceful. But, obviously, there's a lot of concerns that what it's actually doing is trying to develop a nuclear bomb. So that's what - you know, they're going to have to figure out a way to limit the program and make sure there's a way for Iran to answer all these questions about its program, and to come clean on that.

INSKEEP: Just got about 20 seconds, here. But the president also talked about Syria. He said if the U.N. cannot act forcefully to remove Syria's chemical weapons, it will basically show that the international system is incapable of dealing with this. If, in fact, that's the message that comes away from the U.N., do you have any idea what the U.S. wants to do? Would it back away from the U.N.?

KELEMEN: Well, he was really doing that, I think, to get Russia onboard to pass a Security Council resolution to enforce the deal that the U.S. and the Russians have agreed to, to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The negotiations have been tough, and President Obama, you know, really put the onus on Russia to come forward with an agreement on that.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's Michele Kelemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.