UNITED NATIONS — President Obama used his annual address to the United Nations on Tuesday to say he sees an opening for diplomacy with Iran and would pursue a deal to stop the Islamic republic’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — but his words were soon overshadowed by the handshake that wasn’t.
New Iranian President Hasan Rouhani rejected a White House invitation for a brief meeting with Mr. Obama, an American olive branch designed to move the two countries beyond their adversarial positions and toward peace. The administration later claimed that Iranian officials thought it was “too complicated” to be seen meeting with the U.S. and that the conversation, no matter how short, would have posed political problems back home for Mr. Rouhani.
Hours after the snub, the Iranian leader took to the U.N. stage and, while expressing openness to diplomacy with the U.S., blasted “warmongers” around the world and stated flatly that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region.”
The whirlwind day — which included a late-afternoon briefing by senior White House officials to defend their invite to Mr. Rouhani — has diverted much of the attention away from Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The spotlight instead shifted to the prospect of a face-to-face meeting between the presidents.
That, analysts say, is exactly what Iran wanted.
“Power politics is much more exciting than nuclear physics. Rouhani’s play is to obscure the nuclear physics behind a cloud of personalities and pieties, because who really wants to sit down and go through the excruciating detail of the dangers of Iran” and its growing nuclear capability, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
He said Mr. Rouhani is “counting on” being able to turn attention away from his country’s nuclear ambitions and to the man-to-man interactions — or lack thereof — between himself and Mr. Obama.
That surely was not what Mr. Obama envisioned when he spoke Tuesday morning. He delivered a lengthy, wide-ranging address focused on a variety of international issues. He had harsh words for the United Nations regarding Syria, saying a resolution is needed to call for military action if Syrian President Bashar Assad does not give up his chemical weapons stockpile, as he has agreed to do.
Failing to hold Mr. Assad accountable, he said, essentially would render the United Nations irrelevant.
Mr. Obama also tackled the sensitive subject of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, vowing to help foster talks between the two sides. He met Tuesday afternoon with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington next week.
But it was Mr. Obama’s words on Iran that drew the most scrutiny Tuesday; they served as the precursor to the meeting flap that would come later in the day.
“President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic republic will never develop a nuclear weapon. These statements … should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement,” Mr. Obama said. “We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian [nuclear] program is peaceful. To succeed, conciliatory words have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers echoed Mr. Obama’s sentiments, saying that merely talking to the Iranians means little in the grand scheme.
“We need to approach the current diplomatic initiative with eyes wide open, and we must not allow Iran to use negotiations as a tool of delay and deception,” said a joint statement from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
In his own speech later Tuesday, Mr. Rouhani — elected largely on a platform of more moderate foreign policy — sounded in some respects eerily similar to his immediate predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Rouhani denounced the “occupation of Palestine” by the Israelis, criticized economic sanctions against his country and blasted the U.S. for conducting drone strikes around the world, all while denying that Iran is interested in nuclear arms.
“Iran seeks to resolve problems, not create them,” he said. “Iran’s nuclear program and that of all other countries must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes. I declare here openly and unambiguously that, not withstanding the positions of others, this has been and always will be the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran. … Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
The specific issue of Iran may have dominated the day, but Mr. Obama also used his address to focus on America’s broader role in the world.
He shot back at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently took issue with “American exceptionalism” and the U.S. willingness to strike Syria even without authorization from the United Nations.
“The danger for the world is that the United States … may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe that would be a mistake,” Mr. Obama said.
“I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all,” he said.