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Experts eye UN speeches for clues to U.S.-Iran relations

This photo, released by the official website of

This photo, released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, shows Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaking during an interview with state television in Tehran, Iran. (Sept. 10, 2013) Credit: AP

Experts in international relations closely watched the speeches of President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly for clues into what could be a watershed moment in recent relations between the United States and Iran.

"They were both really cautious and appropriately cautious because both leaders understand that there is a very, very, long road to travel before they can reach any kind of agreement," said Michael Oppenheimer of New York University's Center for Global Affairs. "There are many bumps along the way. It still isn't clear at the end of the day that there is enough compatibility and interest for an agreement to be reached."

But diplomacy between two nations that have been at odds since the 1979 revolution in Iran may have already begun.

Secretary of State John Kerry will speak with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Thursday.

Oppenheimer and Adelphi University associate professor Katie Laatikainen said the time may be ripe for detente between Iran and the United States, which share a common concern: Syria.

Iran is a staunch backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the United States would like to broker an end to the civil war that has so far taken 100,000 lives and created millions of refugees.

Oppenheimer said that Iran seeks relief from crippling sanctions and is poised to get it through a normalization of relations with the United States, which has sought the most stringent sanctions against the regime.

Obama, Oppenheimer said, could keep clamps on Iran's nuclear ambitions, which the president vowed to block, with military force if needed, even as Rouhani said his country does not seek nuclear weaponry.

Indeed, Obama said Tuesday that while he welcomed Iran's more moderate words, he'll remain cautiously optimistic until he sees progress on major areas of conflict.

"We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course," Obama said Tuesday. "The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested." But Oppenheimer added that Obama is not in as strong a position as it appears.

"Obama's own domestic situation is a source of weakness," Oppenheimer said, referring to the potential shutdown of the government, attacks on the Affordable Care Act and anemic domestic support after Obama threatened a military attack on Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons last month.

Laatikainen agreed that the "stars are lined up" for some sort of diplomatic breakthrough.

"I think both internally in the United States and internally in Iran there are segments that are not in favor of a return to negotiations," she said. "Both Obama and especially Rouhani are taking a step back from that."

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