Obama says Iran nuclear issue can be resolved peacefully

At the UN, Obama reaffirms his commitment to the Middle East and seeks peaceful solutions for Iran and Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24, 2013.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The United States wants to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully and is not seeking a regime change, President Barack Obama said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday.

Obama said there should be a solid basis to reach an agreement on Iran's nuclear program following recent statements from Iranian leadership, and directed Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue a deal. The tone of the speech was largely conciliatory, analysts said.

The West suspects that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons technology.

Obama said Iran's Supreme Leader's recent fatwa against the use of nuclear weapons signals hope for a breakthrough in nuclear talks. He also mentioned the Iranian victims of chemical weapons attacks by Iraqi troops in the final days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989 – an attack facilitated by the sharing of U.S. intelligence with the Iraqi regime to the detriment of Iranian forces.

Furthermore, he acknowledged U.S. involvement in the ouster of the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, and said that Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs.

"We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course," he said. "The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said.

It remained unclear whether Obama would have a direct encounter with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani while both are in New York Tuesday. White House officials say Obama is open to such an encounter under the right conditions.

But French President Francois Hollande and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were skeptical of Iranian promises not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Hollande said he wanted to see concrete actions from Iran on its nuclear program, while Netanyahu said that the world should not be fooled by Iran's "soothing words."

'Very tough choices'

Much of Obama's speech focused on resolving conflicts in the Middle East. He underscored that the U.S. is prepared to use all elements of power, including military force, to secure its interests in the region.

On Syria, Obama called on the U.N. to remain true to its founding principles: to eliminate war between nations and institutionalize a respect for international law. In this vein, he urged the Security Council to approve a strong resolution to ensure Syria keeps its commitment to turn its chemical weapons stockpile over to the international community for destruction.

He justified his prior position on launching a limited military strike against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by appealing to the Security Council’s historic commitment to preventing mass atrocities. The U.S. alleges that the Assad government launched a chemical attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb that killed up to 1,400 people. A U.N. report corroborates the attack, but does not state the responsible parties.

"What is the role of the United Nations, and international law, in meeting cries for justice? … Should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica?" he asked.

But Obama was quick to emphasize that an agreement on chemical weapons could energize a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement to Syria’s two-year-old civil war. He said military action – by those within Syria or external powers – could not achieve a lasting peace.

He also pledged to give an additional $340 million in humanitarian aid to Syria and urged other nations to contribute, but said that the U.S. should not be expected to carry the burden of promoting international peace alone.

In a direct rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, Obama reasserted his belief that the U.S. is an "exceptional nation," that has shown a true commitment to promoting freedom. 

"In Mali, we supported both the French intervention that successfully pushed back Al-Qaeda, and the African forces who are keeping the peace," he said. "And in Libya, when the Security Council provided a mandate to protect civilians, America joined a coalition that took action."

He questioned the U.N.'s capability to deal with contemporary wars in the Middle East and North Africa, where conflicts are more and more characterized by tensions within nations, not between states.

It "will require new thinking and some very tough choices," he said.

Lisa De Bode contributed reporting. With wire services.

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