U.S. President Barack Obama.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on economy to members of the Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on September 18, 2013. Photo by AFP
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President Barack Obama is open to direct talks between Iran and the United States but only if Tehran is serious about getting rid of its nuclear weapons program, the White House said on Thursday.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivered some positive-sounding rhetoric in an NBC News interview but "actions are more important than words."

When Obama first ran for president in 2008, he said he would hold direct negotiations with Iran under certain conditions. Carney said Obama still holds that position.

Obama, according to Carney, would be willing to have bilateral negotiations provided the Iranians were serious about addressing the international community's insistence that Tehran give up its nuclear weapons program.

"That is the position we hold today," Carney said.

With both Rohani and Obama attending the UN General Assembly next week, speculation has grown that the two leaders might have an encounter of some type. Carney said no meeting is scheduled.

Earlier Thursday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commended efforts by Rohani's government to engage with the international community and praised Tehran for releasing several prominent prisoners.

Ban met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif earlier on Thursday and said he plans to meet with Rohani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week. Rohani is due to address the United Nations on Tuesday.

Since Rohani was elected president in June, the centrist cleric has called for "constructive interaction" with the world, a dramatic shift in tone from the strident anti-Western rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"I told Minister Zarif that I commend the efforts of the new government in Iran in promoting dialogue with the international community," Ban told reporters. "I'm going to meet President Rohani next week ... (to) discuss all the matters of regional concern very closely."

The United States and its allies suspect Iran is seeking nuclear bomb-making capability despite Tehran's insistence that its atomic program has only peaceful aims. Tough sanctions imposed by Washington and the United Nations over the issue have taken a severe toll on Iran's economy.

Rouhani vowed on Wednesday that his government would never develop nuclear weapons, his strongest signal yet that he may be seeking a diplomatic thaw with the West after decades of acrimony.

Ban said he had also praised the Iranian government for releasing 12 political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and a number of women's rights activists, political activists and journalists.

"When I visited Iran last year I raised this issue and discussed it with them and urged them to release all these people. I am glad they have finally taken action," Ban said.

In a tentative sign that hardline policies are being eased in Iran, authorities freed Sotoudeh and at least 10 other prominent prisoners on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to reports on opposition websites.