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Obama, Iran’s President Rouhani Discuss Diplomacy Prospects in a Phone Call

September 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
At the United Nations General Assembly, two diplomatic breakthroughs emerged: a draft resolution to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, plus an agreement among the permanent members of the U.N. security council with Iran to revive negotiations over that country's nuclear programs. Margaret Warner reports from New York.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to breakthroughs on the diplomatic front.

President Obama spoke by phone to Iran’s president this afternoon, the highest-level conversation between the two nations since 1979. And the U.N. Security Council is poised to approve a resolution on Syria tonight.

Margaret Warner reports.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re very hopeful about the prospects for what can be accomplished, but, obviously, there is a lot of work to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: Meeting with India’s prime minister, President Obama hailed the draft U.N. resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have always expressed a preference for resolving this diplomatically, and I appreciate all our international partners in working very hard over the past several days to make sure that we could arrive at a resolution that not only deters and prevents additional chemical use, but actually goes beyond what could’ve been accomplished through any military action, and that is the removal of chemical weapons, one of the largest stockpiles in the world.

MARGARET WARNER: The measure, going before the full Security Council tonight, requires Syria to surrender its chemical weapons for destruction and give weapons experts full access to ensure compliance.

But if Syria balks or cheats, the U.S. and its allies would need a separate resolution if they want U.N. approval to impose sanctions or military action. That was seen as a victory for Syria’s ally Russia. And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the U.N. General Assembly today there’s no place for unilateral action, as President Obama had threatened.

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister: There is no doubt that leadership is required. However, today, it can be only collective leadership based on the agreed-upon actions of the leading members of the international community.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, in Damascus, U.N. inspectors prepared to investigate seven more sites where such weapons were allegedly used, including three incidents since the Aug. 21 attack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400.

There’s also been movement at the U.N. this week on resolving the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. The permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany and Iran, agreed last night to review negotiations next month.

All week, new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been sounding notes of moderation. He told reporters in New York today that he had heard a new tone from other leaders, too.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran: In speaking with senior European officials and also hearing Mr. Obama, the president of the United States, it seemed that they sounded different compared to the past, and I view that as a positive step in the settlement of the differences between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the West.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, skeptics, including Israel, fear Iran may be intending to exploit negotiations to keep beefing up its nuclear enrichment capability, as has happened in the past. Rouhani’s answer was emphatic.

HASSAN ROUHANI: We say explicitly that we do not seek a bomb. We say explicitly that we believe that the building of the bomb is dangerous for us, for our region. We say explicitly that, in our defense doctrine, there is no room for weapons of mass destruction.

MARGARET WARNER: Later, in the White House Briefing Room, President Obama said he had spoken to the Iranian president by phone today.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I reiterated to President Rouhani what I said in New York. While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran said it will present a specific proposal to resolve the standoff at next month’s talks in Geneva.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke to Margaret, who is reporting from the United Nations, just a short time ago.

Margaret, hello again.

It has been a remarkable week at the United Nations in New York, culminating with this phone call President Obama just disclosed this afternoon that he had with the Iranian president, historic, the first contact between the two leaders since 1979. How significant is this?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, I think the phone call is hugely significant.

The Iranians put out a statement almost right away to say that the president had gotten in touch with him as President Rouhani was speeding toward the airport in the back of his car. And I think that what you heard from President Obama was in a way matching the, if not fulsome, certainly very hopeful, optimistic rhetoric that we have been hearing all week from Rouhani.


And I think that when President Obama talked about reaching an agreement expeditiously, about really thinking there was the basis for something, it was more enthusiastic, if I may use that word, than he had been in his very measured comments at the U.N. General Assembly.

So, after so much was made about the fact that the two men never met on that first day, on Tuesday, and didn’t exchange the handshake, I think this is a signal from both of them that this is — at least they are both willing to venture forth into this new era and have some expectation it may bear fruit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. Is there a sense that this could lead to something tangible in what happens to Iran’s nuclear program?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there is, Judy, especially after last night’s meeting between the so-called P-5 — that is the world powers — plus Germany and the Iranians, and Javad Zarif, the foreign minister.

The Americans were impressed by it was more than just tonal, that the Iranians talked about specifically what they were willing to talk about and what kind of things not that they would put on the table or concede, but it was just way more specific than they have heard in years, in years of really rather fruitless negotiations.

And I wouldn’t be surprised but that the president’s phone call reflected that report that he got from them. There are huge hurdles. I mean, the big substantive one is Iran’s insistence that, even after they have done everything the international community wants in terms of their own program, putting constraints on it, they continue to retain the right to enrich uranium while sanctions are lifted.

And, you know, in Washington, too, there are not only hard-liners. There is America’s ally Israel, which is very, very, very suspicious and skeptical of this. And one Iranian official said to me, you know, the — Washington is going to have to match — we have a consensus in Iran, he claimed, but Washington is going to have to match that, or it — or the outcome could be even worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Margaret, there’s also been progress with regard to Syria, language on a resolution about what to do with Syria’s chemical weapons. Where does that stand right now?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, I think this was the most remarkable thing at this U.N. General Assembly week, which is usually just a big gabfest, really, and a lot of speeches, some memorable, some not.

They actually sat down, the U.S. and Russia, who had been at loggerheads over how to enforce this chemical weapons agreement, sat down and actually cobbled together, hammered out a U.N. resolution that should go before the full Security Council tonight.

And while the U.S. didn’t get everything it wanted at all, in terms of, it didn’t get any kind of automatic enforcement mechanism, still, it is — it is really something new when you have had this U.N. Security Council unable to deal with any aspect of the Syrian civil war for over two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, Margaret, you have been picking up, though, the misgivings on the part of the Syrian opposition to all this.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Judy.

I talked to the representative to U.N. of the Syrian opposition, and he was very concerned, one, that there is no automatic enforcement mechanism. Two, there is no accountability built in. There is no talk of whoever is found guilty of having used these weapons should go to the International Criminal Court.

And they’re also concerned that, for the next nine months at least, Assad is going to be — President Assad is going to be considered a negotiating partner, at least a partner with the West and the Russians in dismantling this program, all the while that his conventional forces are pounding rebel forces and civilians and killing at the rate of thousands a month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much to keep an eye on, still.

Margaret Warner, thank you for a great week in New York.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Judy.