A potential encounter at the United Nations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani failed to take place on Tuesday as the Iranians indicated it was too complicated, senior Obama administration officials said.
"There will be no meeting," one official said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Obama had been open to a meeting with Rouhani while both were in New York for U.N. activities but the Iranians were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.
There had been encouraging signs that the U.S. and Iranian presidents would have the highest level contact since before Iran's 1979 revolution. Both presidents have talked about a diplomatic opening to try to settle Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Officials stressed that any encounter between the two men would not have involved negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.
Diplomacy will now go forward between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, the officials said.
President Obama opened the door to direct nuclear talks with Iran's moderate new government on Tuesday, declaring diplomacy worth pursuing though skepticism persisted about Tehran's willingness to back up friendly overtures with concrete action.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said during an address to the United Nations General Assembly.
The president's remarks were to be followed hours later by the international debut of Rouhani, a moderate cleric elected in June. Since taking office, Rouhani has launched a charm offensive with the west, calling for a new start in relations with the U.S. and declaring that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon.
Rouhani's overtures have been welcomed by the White House, stirring up speculation that the U.S. and Iranian leaders might meet on the sidelines of this week's U.N. meetings. Even a brief encounter would be significant, given that American and Iranian leaders have not had any in-person meetings in 36 years.
However, Rouhani skipped a U.N. leaders' lunch Tuesday afternoon, erasing one possible opportunity for Obama and him to meet. The U.S. president was scheduled to depart the U.N. later Tuesday for a health care event and Democratic fundraiser elsewhere in New York before returning to Washington.
The possible diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Iran was being watched warily by Israel, which has long sought tough punishments against Tehran in retaliation for its nuclear program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday warned that the world "should not be fooled" by signs of moderation by Rouhani.
"Iran thinks soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb," Netanyahu said.
The U.S. and its allies have long suspected that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists its nuclear activities are only for producing energy and for medical research.
Even without a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, it was clear that the U.S. and Iran were edging close to direct talks. Obama said he was tasking Secretary of State John Kerry with pursuing the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran. Kerry, along with representatives from five other world powers, is to meet Thursday with Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
If Kerry and Zarif hold one-on-one talks on the sidelines of that meeting, it would mark the first direct engagement in six years between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister.
A spokeswoman for Zarif said Thursday's meeting indeed would mark the beginning of a "new era" in relations with the West.
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