UNITED NATIONS -- President Obama made a direct personal appeal to Iran's new president Tuesday, issuing an overture for a diplomatic resolution of Iran's disputed nuclear program as a "major step down a long road" toward better relations.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said in a lengthy address to the United Nations General Assembly.
"Iran's genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential," Obama said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to speak Monday afternoon but was not present in the hall during Obama's address. However, Iran's new foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, listened attentively at his seat, and TV cameras showed him nodding his head as Obama spoke.
Obama has considered having some kind of informal interaction with Rouhani while both are at the U.N., possibly during a lunch hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
Whether or not he shakes hands with Rouhani, the emphasis Obama placed on the Iranian relationship in his remarks is a signal that he is taking seriously the possibility of direct U.S. talks with Iran.
Obama presented Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons as among the top priorities for U.S. diplomatic efforts in coming months. Along with the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said, the Iranian nuclear program has been a major source of regional instability for "far too long."
Resolution of those two conflicts could serve as a foundation for a broader peace in the Middle East, Obama told diplomats and other heads of state in the hall.
The pairing of the two issues could put pressure on Israel to compromise in proposed peace talks with Palestinian leaders, as the Iranian drive to enrich uranium that might be used for a nuclear weapon is its most significant security concern. Tehran maintains that its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes, such as power generation and medical research.
Iran is the natural subject of discussion at this year's assembly, in the wake of statements from Rouhani that the country will never develop a nuclear weapon. That, plus the declaration of a fatwa, or religious edict, against the development of nuclear weapons by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given rise to hopes that the U.S. and Iran might end their decades-long estrangement.
Obama said his administration is not pursuing "regime change" in Tehran and said he respects the right of Iran to access peaceful nuclear energy. But he acknowledged that ending 34 years of estrangement won't be simple or quick, noting the "mistrust has deep roots."
Iranians have long complained of U.S. interference in their affairs, and America's role in the overthrow of an Iranian government during the Cold War, Obama said. He added that Americans remember the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, sponsorship of terrorist attacks and groups over the years, and threats to Israel's existence.
"I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight," Obama said. "The suspicions run too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect."