President Obama speaks Sept. 27 about recent developments with Iran as well as the possible government shutdown. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — On a day when the UN prepares for a critical vote on how to go about securing and destroying Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles and the American and Iranian presidents shocked the world by chatting on the phone for the first time since 1979, the Pentagon released details on a critical upcoming trip that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will take to visit key Asian allies next week.
President Obama spoke about the phone conversation during a late afternoon press conference in Washington, where he said that he and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talked about the Iranian nuclear program.
In a nod to the digital age, while the president tried to make news with his announcement, he had actually already been scooped by a tweet Rouhani sent, and then deleted, just minutes before Obama began speaking.
“The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran's nuclear program,” Obama said. “I reiterated what I said in New York. While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward and success is not guaranteed, I believe we can reach a conference of solution.”
While the two leaders spoke for about 15 minutes through interpreters and wished one another a good day in their respective languages at the conclusion of the call, a senior administration official said on Friday afternoon that “this is not a negotiation we expect to take place at the presidential level,” however.
The talks will be picked up by State Department and Iranian foreign ministry officials at a UN security council meeting in Geneva next month the official said, but the call sets “a clear direction … to our respective teams to work aggressively toward a deal” on US sanctions and the Iranian nuclear program.
Asked why Obama and Rouhani didn’t speak during their visits to the UN in New York this week, the official said that “it seemed to be too complicated for [the Iranians] at the time” but Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting on Sept. 26 with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif in New York “went quite well” since the two sides shared “a shared sense of urgency” about reaching an agreement between the United States and Iran.
The call came about after US officials indicated to the Iranians that Obama was willing to have a discussion with Rouhani in New York, and Iranian officials reached out on Friday morning to set up a call before Rouhani left New York for Tehran on Friday afternoon.
Just hours before Obama’s remarks, defense officials at the Pentagon outlined Hagel’s third trip to visit key Asia Pacific allies since taking over the Pentagon earlier this year — underscoring Washington’s determination not to take its eye off the “rebalance” to the region despite mounting crises in the Middle East.
The secretary’s first stop is South Korea, where he’ll spend four days touring the demilitarized zone, watching US troops conduct exercises, and celebrating the 60th anniversary of the US/Republic of Korea strategic relationship, according to defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Four days is truly unprecedented” for a US secretary of defense in South Korea, one official said Friday.
The main reason for the trip is to allow South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and Hagel to conduct the annual Security Consultative Meeting that takes stock of the North Korean threat and whether to further push back the planned transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to the Seoul government in December 2015.
The trip will also allow Hagel to preside over the change of command ceremony for US Forces Korea, where Kim and Hagel will witness US Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti taking over for departing Army Gen. James Thurman.
A Pentagon official said that the American-South Korean relationship has matured rapidly in recent years as the two countries move toward handing off control to Seoul. More so than at any time in the past, South Korean ships “are very effective at being deployed, helping us track [North Korean movements], talking to us … collaboration has been excellent and we’re at a different place than we were just a few years ago.”
Secretary of State John Kerry will join Hagel for his two days in Japan as part of the effort to update the Japan-US defense guidelines which were last refreshed in 1997.
Japan's defense chief Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will join Kerry and Hagel in establishing the guidelines for their staffs to begin hammering out a new accord.
The summit will take place just days after the Pentagon announced its intention of selling Japan $950 million worth of mission computing upgrades to its existing fleet of Boeing-made E-767 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) airplanes.
In the Sept. 26 request, the Pentagon said the sale “will provide Japan with an upgraded AWACS command and control capability” that would also “allow Japan’s AWACS fleet to be more compatible with the U.S. Air Force AWACS fleet baseline and provide for greater interoperability.”
It also comes a few months after a major American and Japanese joint exercise which saw a US Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey land on the deck of a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship for the first time off the California coast.
The exercise — dubbed Dawn Blitz 2013 — involved about 1,000 Japanese soldiers, three Japanese warships and assorted attack and cargo helicopters all whom teamed up with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) and the US Navy's Expeditionary Strike Group 3.