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In the weeks since Iran's President Hasan Rowhani was elected this summer, he and President Obama have swapped letters, Obama says. The U.S. president discussed the exchange for the first time publicly in an interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired on ABC's This Week Sunday.
The interview was conducted Friday, before U.S. and Russian diplomats hammered out a deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal. But the question arose of what message other countries might infer from the U.S. pursuit of a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the Syrian dilemma — particularly in Iran, which is pursuing a nuclear program against U.S. wishes.
Asked if he had reached out personally to Iran's president, Obama answered, "I have. And he's reached out to me. We haven't spoken directly ..." At this point, Stephanopolous asked if he meant they'd exchanged letters, and Obama said yes.
But the president didn't predict a rosy future of easy dealings with Iran as a result of its new leader, who is seen as more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult," Obama said. "I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy."
Speaking of Iran in light of the Syrian crisis, the president noted that for the U.S., preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is a higher priority than ridding Syria of chemical weapons. And Iran's leaders should remember that, he said.
"My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn't draw a lesson that we haven't struck [Syria] — to think that we won't strike Iran. On the other hand, what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically," Obama said.
The president added, "My view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort that in fact, you can strike a deal."