Iran-US diplomatic ties on the mend

Diplomatic ties between the two countries were cut off in 1980.

Iran's President Hasan Rowhani (L) delivers a speech after being sworn in before parliament in Tehran on 4 August 2013. Picture: AFP/ATTA KENARE

DUBAI - Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that President Hassan Rouhani had exchanged letters with US President Barack Obama, confirming direct communication between the leaders of the two countries.

The United States and Iran cut off formal diplomatic ties in 1980, shortly after students and Islamic militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage.

But officials from both countries have said they are open to direct talks in order to find a diplomatic solution to a decade-long dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, over which the West has imposed economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons but the United States and its allies suspect it is working towards a nuclear weapons capability.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said on Tuesday that Obama had sent Rouhani a message of congratulations on the occasion of his election.

"As we have seen in news reports, this letter has been exchanged," Afkham said, according to the ISNA news agency. "The mechanism for exchanging these letters is through current diplomatic channels."

Obama said in an interview broadcast on Sunday he had exchanged letters with Rouhani. The two men will speak on the same day at the UN General Assembly next week, though there are currently no plans for them to meet.

Rouhani, a centrist cleric who defeated more conservative candidates in June elections, has said he wants to pursue "constructive interaction" with the world, raising expectations of a negotiated settlement to the nuclear dispute.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet US President Barack Obama in Washington on September 30, an Israeli official said on Tuesday, for talks expected to focus on Iran's nuclear programme.

Netanyahu, confirming he would see Obama but giving no exact date, said the talks would take place before he attended the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York.

"I intend to focus on the question of stopping Iran's nuclear programme - an actual halt to the nuclear programme. And until this is achieved, the pressure on Iran should be intensified and not eased," Netanyahu told his cabinet.

Western powers suspect Iran of harbouring ambitions to build an atomic bomb, but Iran says its nuclear programme is intended purely for peaceful purposes.

Israel is also in the midst of US-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians that the Obama administration hopes will yield an accord within months. Both countries are concerned by fighting in Syria, on Israel's borders, and the use of chemical weapons there.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu and Obama would meet on Sept 30 in Washington and that the prime minister would probably address the UN assembly the next day.