NEW YORK — The Obama administration edged closer to direct, high-level talks with Iran's new government on Monday, with Secretary of State John Kerry slated to meet his Iranian counterpart this week and the White House weighing an encounter between President Barack Obama and Iran's president, Hasan Rouhani.
An Obama-Rouhani exchange on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly would mark the first meeting at that high level for the two nations in more than 30 years. Such talks could signal a turning point in U.S.-Iranian relations — but also could be seen as a premature endorsement of a new Iranian government that has yet to answer key questions about the future of its disputed nuclear program.
Obama advisers said no meeting has been scheduled. But they added that the United States plans to take advantage of diplomatic opportunities while in New York and indicated they were not leaving a possible encounter between Obama and Rouhani to chance.
"I don't think that anything would happen by happenstance on a relationship and an issue that is this important," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president to New York.
The election of Rouhani, a moderate cleric, has led to speculation about possible progress on Iran's nuclear impasse with the United States. Washington and its allies have long suspected that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon.
American officials say Rouhani's change in tone is driven by the Iranian public's frustration with crippling economic sanctions levied by the United States. But it is still unclear whether Iran is willing to take the steps the United States is seeking, including curbing uranium enrichment.
State Department officials said Kerry will seek to answer that question on Thursday when new Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joins nuclear talks among the United States and five other world powers: Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Zarif's participation, which was announced Monday, sets up the first meeting in six years between an American secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister, though it's unclear whether the two men will break off from the group and hold separate one-on-one talks.