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US, Iran hold high-level meeting. 'Substantive' nuclear talks ahead?

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held a brief yet historic bilateral meeting at the UN Thursday as the Security Council met to discuss Iran's nuclear program. All sides predict future talks will be 'substantive' and 'ambitious.'

By Staff writer / September 26, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany at UN headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013.

Jason DeCrow/AP

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United Nations, N.Y.

The new cooperative tone set by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations this week delivered its first concrete result Thursday as world powers and Iran agreed to hold what all sides predicted would be “substantive” and “ambitious” talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

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Underscoring the breadth of the new climate, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held a brief yet historic bilateral meeting on the margins of the nuclear discussions between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – plus Germany.

Both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif subsequently spoke of meeting with the other almost as if it were a typical diplomatic session, but in fact it was anything but: The conversation in the UN Security Council chambers was the first of any length and depth between the two antagonistic countries’ top diplomats since before the 1979 Iranian revolution.

“We’ve agreed to try to continue the process,” Kerry said of his “side meeting” with Zarif. He described the Iranian minister’s presentation to the so-called P5+1 powers as "very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to possibilities of the future."

A smiling Zarif made quick mention of his “short bilateral” meeting with Kerry. Eschewing the more typical combative and accusatory tone of Iran’s diplomatic language over past decades – particularly in reference to the US – Zarif said, “Now we [all] have to see if we can match our positive words with serious deeds.”

The six countries agreed to meet in Geneva on Oct. 15-16 for what would be the first talks on Iran’s nuclear program since April. Those meetings, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, ended without Iran even responding to negotiation starting points proposed by the European Union’s chief diplomat, Catherine Ashton.

Lady Ashton, who chaired Thursday’s meeting, echoed other officials in describing a totally different atmosphere in the discussions with Zarif. “To have the Iranian minister openly talk was a positive change in itself,” she said.

Ashton said the discussion included talk of an “ambitious timeframe” for moving from negotiations to agreement to “implementation on the ground.” She added that she has discussed a number of “timeframes” with President Rouhani when she met with him Thursday morning, and they were “all of an ambitious nature.”

Iran is anxious to see a lifting of the onerous international sanctions the Security Council has imposed over the country’s expanding nuclear program, which Western powers believe is aimed at building a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its nuclear activities are limited to peaceful purposes.

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