President Barack Obama said Tuesday that recent overtures from Iran on its nuclear program could start the United States and Iran down a "long road towards a different relationship - one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
In an address to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama stressed that the United States is determined not to let Iran develop a nuclear weapon.
But he suggested that two statements - an edict from Iran's supreme leader against the development of nuclear weapons and a statement from Iran's new president that his country will never develop a nuclear weapon - represent crucial progress.
"We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful," Obama told world leaders at the meeting.
He said that he was directing Secretary of State John Kerry, working closely with European allies, Russia and China, to pursue an agreement with the government of Iran.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said.
He spoke of deep mistrust between the United States and Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution there: Iranians have complained of U.S. interference, while Americans see a country that has taken Americans hostage, killed American troops and threatened Israel.
"I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight - the suspicion runs too deep," he said. "But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship - one based on mutual interests and mutual respect."
At a luncheon later Tuesday, Obama could break bread in the same room as Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, who said on Twitter that he was looking forward to "constructive engagement with the world" at the General Assembly.
It was not clear whether Obama and Rouhani would meet in any capacity. Even a handshake would represent an historic gesture for two countries whose leaders have not met in three decades. The White House has said that no meeting is planned but has not explicitly ruled it out.
Rouhani's visit to the United Nations is being watched closely around the world. He has made diplomatic overtures to the West since his election in June, and he told NBC News last week that he has the authority to make a deal on Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Later in the day, Obama was to meet with the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and attend a luncheon for heads of state. He also had meetings scheduled with the president of Lebanon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
President Barack Obama tell the U.N. Tuesday that anyone who suggests that Bashar al-Assad did not carry out a chemical weapons attack in August is insulting the "legitimacy of this institution."
On the crisis in Syria, Obama called on the U.N. to pass a strong resolution to verify that Syrian leader Bashar Assad lives up to his commitment to get rid of his chemical weapons.
"If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws," he said. "On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says."
The president said that it was an "insult to human reason and the legitimacy of this institution" to suggest that anyone other than the forces of Assad used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack in the Syrian civil war.
The United States says it has overwhelming evidence that loyalist forces sent sarin-gas rockets into a rebel neighborhood and killed 1,400 people, including civilians and more than 400 children.
Obama threatened a military strike to enforce the nearly worldwide ban on chemical weapons. The attack was averted when the United States and Russia struck a deal under which Syria must hand over and ultimately destroy its chemicals by next year.
In his address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said that he made the threat because "it is in the security interest of the United States and the world to meaningfully enforce a prohibition whose origins are older than the U.N. itself."
He spoke of the memories of soldiers suffocated in the trenches of World War I, of Jews slaughered in Nazi gas chambers and - pointedly - of the tens of thousands of Iranians poisoned to death in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s.
President Barack Obama addresses the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians Tuesday at the U.N.
Outlining American policy in the Middle East, Obama said Tuesday that the United States was committed to using "all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region."
He said that the United States would confront aggression against allies, and ensure the flow of energy to the world. He also vowed to dismantle terror networks that threaten Americans, and said that the U.S. would not tolerate weapons of mass destruction.
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