UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (R) greets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before a meeting at the United Nations in New York on September 23, 2014
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (R) greets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before a meeting at the United Nations in New York on September 23, 2014 © Jewel Samad - AFP
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (R) greets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before a meeting at the United Nations in New York on September 23, 2014
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Jennie Matthew, AFP
Last updated: September 25, 2014

Iran leader set for center stage at UN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes center stage at the UN General Assembly on Thursday, addressing the world's largest diplomatic gathering after being courted by European leaders for support on Syria.

Dressed in his trademark crisp robes and turban, the reform-minded president has been a picture of activity since jetting into the Big Apple for his second UN General Assembly since being elected in 2013.

His prominence highlights the growing importance that the West affords Tehran as a US-led coalition seeks to isolate jihadists responsible for beheading two Americans and one British hostage.

Giving interviews and posting frequent updates on Twitter, Rouhani has basked in the attention, telling the United States that air strikes will not destroy the Islamic State group in Syria, but saying that chances are high for a deal over Tehran's nuclear program.

On Thursday he will be first to the podium on what is the second day of the UN General Assembly. He will make his highly anticipated speech at 9:00 am (1300 GMT).

He is likely to address the threat posed by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and Western concerns that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a claim denied by Tehran.

Underlining his status in New York, Rouhani held landmark talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday, leading Cameron to declare that Iran could be "part of the solution" in defeating IS.

They were the highest-level talks between Britain and Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, one day after Rouhani met French President Francois Hollande for a second time.

Cameron told the General Assembly that Britain had "severe disagreements" with Iran, but said Tehran should "be given the chance to show it can be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Hollande told Rouhani that "every support" was required to find political solutions with regard to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

- Constructive engagement -

On Iran's nuclear program -- Tehran rejects Western accusations that it hopes to develop nuclear weapons, insisting its intentions are peaceful -- Rouhani has called on ministerial talks in New York to take advantage of an "historic opportunity."

An agreement on the disputed program would foster a "new atmosphere" that would benefit Iran and the United States, long arch rivals.

Iran has also welcomed the new government in Iraq, where Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has sought to be more inclusive than the previous administration that alienated Sunni Muslims.

#Fraternity, #ConstructiveEngagement, tweeted Rouhani next to a picture of himself sitting with Abadi in New York.

He will take that personal engagement a step further when he is due to deliver a keynote address to interfaith leaders and guests at a Manhattan church, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, on Friday.

But perhaps anxious not to be too accommodating, Rouhani has said now is not the moment to meet face to face with President Barack Obama, despite talking on the telephone at the end of last year's Assembly.

Tehran has been unusually accepting of the US military action against Islamic State jihadists in Iraq.

Iran is also tackling IS there, but is a strong backer of the Syrian government -- a regime Washington says has no legitimacy.

"It is not clear for us what they (the United States) are seeking," Rouhani said in an interview broadcast on US television Wednesday of American action in the Middle East.

"Whether they're under the pressure of their own domestic public opinions and they want to put on a show, a theater for public consumption, or they're after a tangible, a real objective in the region; it is not crystal clear for us.

"But what I can tell you unequivocably, no terrorist group can be eradicated and destroyed through aerial bombardments only," he said.

Asked about the prospect of securing an agreement on Iran's nuclear activities, Rouhani said he believed a deal was "within reach" before a November 24 deadline.

He said Iran must safeguard its right to use peaceful nuclear energy and the West must also be assured there will be no deviation from that.

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