With a potential diplomatic solution at hand in Syria and new signs emerging that Iran may be willing to halt its nuclear program, President Barack Obama will provide an updated assessment of the American approach to the Middle East during the annual United Nations General Assembly that begins Monday in New York.
Obama currently is not slated to meet with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, though the White House has not ruled out face-to-face diplomacy between the two leaders. Obama and Rouhani exchanged letters in the months since the Iranian president was elected in June, and on Friday Rouhani wrote in an opinion piece he was open to "a constructive approach" toward areas of contention with the United States, including its nuclear program.
"The fact of the matter is, we don't have a meeting scheduled with President Rouhani, but again, we're always open to diplomacy if we believe it can advance our objectives," Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters during a conference call Friday, adding that Obama has said since 2007 that he'd be willing to negotiate directly with Iran without preconditions.
In addition to the letters with Obama and an op-ed piece in Friday's Washington Post, Rouhani has granted interviews to western news outlets, including one with CNN next week.
"We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart," Rouhani wrote in the Post Friday.
Publicly, the White House has viewed Rouhani's latest outreach attempts skeptically, saying U.S. officials will look for actions, not words, on halting nuclear enrichment. Rhodes said Friday that Rouhani's actions to date were "clearly not sufficient to meet the concerns of the international community with regards to the nuclear program."
But the charm offensive, apparently sprung from tough economic sanctions currently in place in Iran, prompted speculation that Obama and Rouhani would meet at next week's U.N. general assembly. If they did, it would be the first meeting between an American president and Iranian counterpart since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"I can't predict every interaction that might take place at different levels at the U.N.; it's possible that there could be some interaction at different levels, but there's just simply none planned at this moment," Rhodes said later when asked if there were any scheduled meetings between members of the American and Iranian delegations.
Obama will hold bilateral meetings next week with the leaders of Nigeria and Lebanon, as well as with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas -- the first time the two have met since direct Mideast peace negotiations restarted earlier this year. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the White House at the end of September.
During his address to the U.N. on Tuesday, Obama will use events in the Middle East and Africa to explain the evolving role of the United States in that area of the world, Rhodes said Friday.
"Given the complexity and breadth of challenge that we face in the region, the president will lay out an update of America's approach, how we see our interests, how we're going to be pursuing and prioritizing our policies going forward," he said.
That address will include a section on Syria, and the use of chemical weapons there. The United States and Russia recently agreed on a diplomatic plan that would force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to forfeit his chemical weapons stockpile to international control.
And Obama will reiterate his stance on Iran's nuclear program, while conveying his "openness to diplomacy and the prospect for a peaceful resolution of this issue," Rhodes said.