- POSTED: 24 Sep 2013 23:43
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US President Barack Obama and his new Iranian counterpart Hassan Rowhani were Tuesday to battle for the spotlight at the opening of the UN General Assembly, with all eyes on a possible historic meeting between the two leaders.
UNITED NATIONS: US President Barack Obama and his new Iranian counterpart Hassan Rowhani were on Tuesday to battle for the spotlight at the opening of the UN General Assembly, with all eyes on a possible historic meeting between the two leaders.
While the war in Syria is expected to dominate discussion, the world was watching to see whether a handshake or some other gesture would signal a possible thaw in ties between the arch foes.
The two will not be in the assembly hall at the same time, and the Iranian foreign ministry said there were no plans for a meeting, which would be a first contact between the two countries' presidents since the 1979 revolution in Iran.
"Such a meeting is not on the agenda," foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told reporters after the White House did not rule out the possibility.
"The right situation must present itself for this meeting. Our assessment is that it has not been presented yet," she said.
Obama will be the second speaker on Tuesday to take the podium before more than 130 kings, heads of state and government leaders gathered at the UN headquarters in New York for a week of addresses and negotiations.
Rowhani, who was elected in June and has indicated he wants better ties with the West despite a nuclear showdown, will follow several hours later.
But they could cross paths at a lunch UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is holding for leaders.
High level contacts between top Iranian and US officials have been rare since the United States broke off relations with Iran in 1980 in the tumultuous events after its Islamic revolution.
But new Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who will have a landmark meeting with his US counterpart John Kerry later in the week, said there was a "historic opportunity" to resolve Iran's decade-long nuclear showdown with world powers.
Zarif and Kerry will be the first US and Iranian ministers to meet as part of talks between the major powers -- United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China -- and Iran over its contested nuclear program.
Western powers said Monday that Iran had to follow up on Rowhani's comments calling for better ties if it wants to be taken seriously.
The statements have "to be matched by concrete steps and actions" on Iran's nuclear drive and help for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after talks with Zarif.
Syria dominates UN speeches
Obama, like most leaders, was to devote a lot of his speech to the 30-month-old Syrian war that has left well over 100,000 dead, according to the UN.
Obama's speech "will address three major diplomatic priorities," a White House official said, naming the conflict in Syria, Iran and the nuclear issues, and the ongoing Middle East peace process.
"The president will also step back and discuss the events that have unfolded since the Arab Spring, and how the United States plans to engage the region going forward," the official said.
Obama's call for action on Syria against the use of banned chemical arms comes as the UN Security Council struggles to agree a resolution to back a Russia-US plan to destroy Assad's arsenal.
The United States, Britain and France want a resolution that uses Chapter VII of the UN Charter to give legal force to the plan.
Having first called for Chapter VII, Moscow now opposes the measure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accuses the West of using "blackmail" to get a resolution that approves military force.
But in a sign of a possible compromise, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday the resolution could mention the article, which could only be invoked if the Russia-US chemical weapons deal was breached by either side in the conflict.
The deadlock could be lifted when Kerry and Lavrov meet later Tuesday on the sidelines of the UN summit. But if they cannot agree on enforcement measures then the disarmament mission could be seriously delayed, diplomats warned.
France's Fabius said he still believed a resolution can be agreed this week, though he reaffirmed calls for Chapter VII action.
Ban will call a meeting on Wednesday of the foreign ministers of the Security Council permanent members -- Kerry, Lavrov, Hague, Fabius and China's Wang Yi -- to press for united action on the Syria crisis.
He will also meet with Kerry and Lavrov separately in a bid to agree on a date for a Syria peace conference in Geneva, with the meeting due to be held on Friday.