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.'

Jason DeCrow/AP
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.

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.

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.

Zarif has spoken of achieving an accord within six months, and most recently has floated the idea of a incremental accord under which Iran’s phased-in steps to meet international concerns would be matched by a progressive lifting of economic sanctions.  

The switch in Iran’s tone to one of optimism as to diplomatic possibilities has been on display all week in President Rouhani’s speeches and interviews in New York. “If there is political will on the other side, which we think there is, we are ready to talk,” he said Wednesday. “We believe the nuclear issue will be solved by negotiation.”

Years of fruitless talks and false starts between Iran and the world powers have gone nowhere as Iran has increased its uranium enrichment and built new nuclear facilities – in some cases deep underground, to survive any future military strikes. That has left some international leaders deeply suspicious of Iran’s new tone.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who describes Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” is expected to warn the international community against compromise with Iran when he speaks to the UN General Assembly next week.

But many diplomats and nuclear nonproliferation experts say that the elements of a strict and verifiable accord with Iran are largely established – and that the outlines of what each side is expected to bring to the table in Geneva next month are already known.

“The devil is going to be in the details, but it’s doable and it’s necessary,” says Daryl Kimball, president of the Arms Control Association in Washington. Both sides, he says, will have to “adjust previous positions and find a way to get to yes.”

The P5+1 side is likely to present an opening proposal that is similar to what it presented in the spring talks, Mr. Kimball says. Iran will be asked to offer concrete reassurances that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, while demands will include an end to uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity (a level close to what is needed to create fuel for a nuclear weapon) and removal of existing 20-percent stockpiles from the country, Kimball says.

In addition, he says, Iran will be asked to fully cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors investigating Iran’s past nuclear weapons research.

For its part, Iran is likely to demand recognition of what it says is its international right to a peaceful nuclear program – including some enrichment capacity. In return for its commitments to the international community, Iran will expect “significant sanctions relief,” Kimball says.

The new tone surrounding Iran and related diplomatic possibilities may reflect more than anything else that, for the first time in a long while, both sides are eager for progress, some foreign affairs experts say.

“Both sides are eager to have this go somewhere because it’s never gone anywhere before, and neither side is happy with where things have gone in the diplomatic stalemate,” says Melissa Labonte, a Middle East specialist at Fordham University in New York.

Kerry’s meeting with Zarif reflects a diplomatic opening to Iran that President Obama has extended since the beginning of his presidency, Professor Labonte says – an opening that may finally be tested.

“Up to this point, Obama has been pushing on a closed door,” she says. Sending Kerry to hold even a brief one-on-one with the Iranian foreign minister “may mean he feels like he’s pushing on a more open door.”

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