The Iranian and U.S. presidents have backed the prospect of renewed talks to resolve the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.
However, Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rohani did not take the opportunity to meet September 24 at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.
U.S. officials said Obama was ready for a possible meeting, but that Iran declined, citing complications.
It would have been the first encounter between U.S. and Iranian leaders in 36 years. Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since 1980, following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.
Rohani did, however, meet with French President Francois Hollande, a strong backer of U.S. demands for Iran to curtail nuclear work that could be used to construct an atomic bomb.
Rohani, who is seen as a moderate in Iran’s system, was elected in June and took office in August. He has sent out signals that he may be ready to take a more conciliatory approach to the West after years of tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and other issues under the more hard-line ex-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
In his address to the General Assembly, Rohani said Iran "is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence.”
He also rejected the development of nuclear weapons, saying such arms have no place in Iran’s security and defense policies.
"Iran’s nuclear program, and for that matter all other countries, should be pursued exclusively for peaceful purposes," he said. "Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iranian defense doctrine and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions."
Rohani also deplored the use of sanctions to punish Iran over its nuclear program, saying they have a “violent” impact on the lives of ordinary Iranians.
The UN Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran, and the United States and its allies have imposed their own sanctions. These have led to a reduction of Iranian oil exports, which are vital for Iran’s economy, and restricted Iran’s ability to conduct international banking transactions.
In his speech, Rohani also called on the Obama administration to ignore what he called “warmongering pressure groups" that seek conflict.
He added that Iran is open to talks with the United States to "manage" their differences.
Rohani’s speech was immediately denounced by Iranian rival and U.S. ally Israel.
In a written statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the address was a “cynical speech full of hypocrisy,” and said it contained no commitments to fulfill UN Security Council resolutions.
Netanyahu said Rohani’s speech was aimed at stalling international action so Iran will have more time to obtain nuclear weapons.
In his address to the General Assembly, Obama said the United States remains determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. But Obama also backed resolving the issue through diplomacy.
“America prefers to resolve out concerns over Iran's nuclear program peacefully, although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," he said.
Obama acknowledged that the mistrust between Washington and Tehran has “deep roots.” But he said he believes the countries still have the potential to reach a “meaningful agreement."
The top U.S. and Iranian diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, are due to take part in international talks on Iran’s nuclear program on September 26.