President Obama pledged to focus his foreign policy efforts on the Middle East on Monday, stepping up efforts to reach an agreement on Iran's nuclear programme and leading an international push to support the creation of a Palestinian state as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In a mark of the importance and urgency with which the White House treats the need for a nuclear deal with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Obama assigned his secretary of state, John Kerry, to oversee negotiations with Tehran. In the past those talks had been led by a succession of State Department diplomats, and critics had complained there was no one in the administration who was in charge of US-Iran policy.
He also offered Rouhani an important symbolic gesture, making the first official US acknowledgement of the CIA's well-documented role in the ousting of Iran's democratically-elected government in 1953.
The president's speech, delivered from the podium of the UN general assembly, represented a striking admission that his administration's attempt to "pivot to Asia" had been stymied by the intractable nature of the Middle East's problems and by the danger of the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the region, such as last month's use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Obama said that if the UN security council failed to pass a strong resolution enforcing the dismantling of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons arsenal, then the institution would show itself "incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws".
However, in his UN speech Obama made clear that the US saw the Iranian nuclear programme as a much more immediate and serious threat to its core interests, and he responded to the overtures of the newly-elected leadership in Tehran, by putting Kerry in charge of the coming critical weeks of intense negotiations.
"Given President Rouhani's stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government, in close coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China," the president said.
The move mirrored Rouhani's decision to put his own foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in charge of the talks, breaking from the practice of the past eight years of abortive negotiations of assigning them to senior officials. The foreign ministers of all seven countries are due to meet for the first time at the UN on Thursday.
"Directing Secretary Kerry to lead this, signals that the negotiations may be elevated to the foreign minister level, which would be very good news," said Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, and the author of a book on US-Iranian negotiations, A Single Roll of the Dice. "This means that far greater political will is being invested into the diplomatic process, which in turn increases the cost of failure. That is exactly what is needed to overcome the political obstacles to a deal."
Obama acknowledged the difficulties ahead: "The roadblocks may prove to be too great but I firmly believe a diplomatic path must be tested," he said.
Referencing the US involvement in a 1953 coup, Obama said: "This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of US interference in their affairs, and America's role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War."
The reference to the CIA's part in the ousting of Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran's democratically-elected leader, marked a first official admission of that role, and represented an important gesture to Rouhani. It will be seen in Iran as a diplomatic victory and belated acknowledgement of a long-festering Iranian sense of injustice. The coup, support by both the US and the UK, paved the way for the dictatorship of the Shah, and then the 1979 Islamic revolution against it.
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