Russian-American cooperation on the Iran nuclear deal could pave the way for an agreement on Syria, Barack Obama has said, despite the current confrontation between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.
Mr Obama praised Vladimir Putin for his role in the agreement and said there could now be an "opening” for further detente in the worst crisis in American-Russian relations since the Cold War.
Speaking shortly after a historic agreement to curb Iran's nuclear programme was signed in Vienna, Mr Obama said that there was now an opportunity for a "serious conversation" with Mr Putin about the fate of Bashar Assad, the embattled Syrian president.
Russia's president Vladimir Putin (Barcroft)
He did not go into details, but analysts in Moscow and Washington have previously suggested diplomats may be working on a bargain that would see a managed change of regime in Damascus acceptable to both Moscow and Washington.
Speaking to the New York Times Mr Obama said Mr Putin’s cooperation had "surprised” him, and that he was hopeful of an "opening” for further detente in otherwise fraught relationship between the two powers.
"Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalised on this in a way that surprised me,” he told the paper.
"We would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”
Russia worked hard to achieve a nuclear deal and Vladimir Putin praised the agreement achieved on Tuesday, saying that the "world heaved a sigh of relief” and promising that "Russia will do everything” to implement it.
"The political will demonstrated by these six states and Iran in the course of these negotiations is a guarantee of the successful implementation of the plan of action designed for the long term,” he said in a statement.
The deal meets several Russian foreign policy goals, including ending the isolation of Iran, Russia’s key Middle Eastern ally, paving the way for Russia to develop Iran’s civilian nuclear programme, and potentially reopening a historically lucrative market for Russian arms.
Some Russian analysts fret that the return of Iranian crude to the global oil market will suppress prices, and that in the long term the deal will allow Tehran to seek new partners outside its close but often fractious alliance with Moscow.
Mr Obama said Mr Putin had telephoned him recently to discuss Syria, where the regime of Bashar Assad, a Russian ally, has suffered severe battlefield setbacks in recent months.
"I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria [to Sunni jihadist militias] and that the prospects for a Isil or al-Nusra takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day,” he said.
Differences over the 2014 revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and backing of a separatist rebellion in the east of the country have plunged relations between the United States and Russia to the their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
The crisis has seen Nato and Russia both mount sabre-rattling military exercises that analysts worry could spill into a wider conflict in Europe.