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West awaits Iran leader's U.N. address

| Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, 8:09 p.m.

WASHINGTON — For the past six years, the Iranian president's speech at the annual gathering of the United Nations has been met by a ritual walkout of Western diplomats. This year, they're likely to hang around till the end — and some may even applaud.

Instead of the angry Holocaust-denying diatribes of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his soft-spoken successor, Hassan Rouhani, is likely to give a conciliatory address to world leaders this week. It will be watched for signs that he is willing to thaw relations with the West.

Western diplomats predict that Rouhani's speech on Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly will include an important gesture, perhaps an acknowledgment of the Holocaust. U.S. officials would like to see him go further during his five-day visit, possibly by consenting to direct talks with Washington for the first time since diplomatic relations were ruptured by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The White House says it has not scheduled a meeting between President Obama and the 64-year-old cleric. But U.S. officials have dropped hints that Obama and other top officials are ready for impromptu chats with Rouhani or his U.S.-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, that could open the way for bargaining on Iran's disputed nuclear program.

There are signs that Rouhani “is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States in a way that we haven't seen in the past,” Obama said in an interview on Telemundo. “So we should test it.”

Obama has repeatedly signaled his willingness for direct contact, both in remarks and in a recent exchange of letters with Rouhani, who was elected in June after a campaign that included pledges to ease Iran's isolation and improve relations with the West.

Iran's most powerful figure, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long resisted compromise on the nuclear program. But with punitive sanctions increasingly squeezing the economy, he has signaled top-level support for the Rouhani mission, including allowing the release of 11 political prisoners. Most had been held since the government crackdown that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.

Whether Rouhani is simply presenting a more moderate face to the world or is open to real compromise to end the nuclear dispute is unclear.

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