US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani appears to want to open a dialogue with the United States and that he is willing to test whether this is the case.
Obama's comment in an interview with Spanish-language network Telemundo was the latest indication the president would like to jump from the crisis over Syria's chemical weapons to a new search for a diplomatic deal to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.
Last weekend, Obama revealed he and Rouhani had exchanged letters about the US-Iran standoff. Both leaders will be at the UN General Assembly in New York next week, although White House officials say there are no current plans for them to meet.
"There is an opportunity here for diplomacy," Obama told Telemundo. "And I hope the Iranians take advantage of it."
Obama ran for president in 2008 in part by vowing to open a dialogue with Iran.
But there has been no breakthrough and sanctions by Washington and the United Nations to weaken Iran's economy have gradually been increased to try to pressure Tehran to give up a nuclear program that it denies is aimed at building a weapon.
"There are indication that Rouhani, the new president, is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven't seen in the past. And so we should test it," Obama said.
Since the surprise election in June of Rouhani, a centrist cleric, officials from both countries have made increasing hints that they are open to direct talks to seek an end to the decade-long nuclear dispute.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned against falling for Rouhani's "charm offensive" during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Netanyahu said that both a meeting with Obama scheduled for the end of the month and his address to the UN General Assembly the following day will focus on Iran. Obama and Netanyahu have been in frequent phone contact over the last several weeks amid the Syria chemical weapons crisis.
Obama says it's hard to imagine Syrian war winding down with Assad in power
Obama also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria in Tuesday's Telemundo interview, saying that there will ultimately need to be a political transition in the country in which President Bashar Assad gives up power.
"Keep in mind that it's very hard to imagine that (the Syrian) civil war dying down if in fact Assad is still in power," Obama said.
Obama said it is still his goal to "transition him out of power" in a way that protects Syria's religious minorities and ensures Islamist extremists are not gaining ground inside the country, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in a 2-1/2-year civil war.
"But you know, we're going to take this one step at a time. The first step right now is to make sure we can deal with the chemical weapons issue," said Obama.
Afterward, he said, the next step will be to engage all the parties involved in the Syrian crisis and countries that have been supportive of Syria like Russia and say, "We need to bring an end to this."
UN investigators said on Monday that sarin gas killed hundreds of civilians in an Aug. 21 attack on the suburbs of Damascus.
The chemical weapons deal sealed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has drawn fire from critics who worry there is no strong enforcement mechanism to make certain Syria carries out its promises to give up these weapons.