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.'
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 â€śsubstantiveâ€ť and â€śambitiousâ€ť talks on Iranâ€™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 â€“ the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom â€“ 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 countriesâ€™ top diplomats since before the 1979 Iranian revolution.
â€śWeâ€™ve agreed to try to continue the process,â€ť Kerry said of his â€śside meetingâ€ť with Zarif. He described the Iranian ministerâ€™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 â€śshort bilateralâ€ť meeting with Kerry. Eschewing the more typical combative and accusatory tone of Iranâ€™s diplomatic language over past decades â€“ particularly in reference to the US â€“ Zarif said, â€śNow we [all] have to see if we can match our positive words with serious deeds.â€ť
The six countries agreed to meet in Geneva on Oct. 15-16 for what would be the first talks on Iranâ€™s nuclear program since April. Those meetings, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, ended without Iran even responding to negotiation starting points proposed by the European Unionâ€™s chief diplomat, Catherine Ashton.
Lady Ashton, who chaired Thursdayâ€™s meeting, echoed other officials in describing a totally different atmosphere in the discussions with Zarif. â€śTo have the Iranian minister openly talk was a positive change in itself,â€ť she said.
Ashton said the discussion included talk of an â€śambitious timeframeâ€ť for moving from negotiations to agreement to â€śimplementation on the ground.â€ť She added that she has discussed a number of â€śtimeframesâ€ť with President Rouhani when she met with him Thursday morning, and they were â€śall of an ambitious nature.â€ť
Iran is anxious to see a lifting of the onerous international sanctions the Security Council has imposed over the countryâ€™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 Iranâ€™s phased-in steps to meet international concerns would be matched by a progressive lifting of economic sanctions. Â
The switch in Iranâ€™s tone to one of optimism as to diplomatic possibilities has been on display all week in President Rouhaniâ€™s speeches and interviews in New York. â€śIf there is political will on the other side, which we think there is, we are ready to talk,â€ť he said Wednesday. â€śWe believe the nuclear issue will be solved by negotiation.â€ť
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 â€“ in some cases deep underground, to survive any future military strikes. That has left some international leaders deeply suspicious of Iranâ€™s new tone.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who describes Rouhani as a â€śwolf in sheepâ€™s clothing,â€ť 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 â€“ and that the outlines of what each side is expected to bring to the table in Geneva next month are already known.
â€śThe devil is going to be in the details, but itâ€™s doable and itâ€™s necessary,â€ť says Daryl Kimball, president of the Arms Control Association in Washington. Both sides, he says, will have to â€śadjust previous positions and find a way to get to yes.â€ť
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 AgencyÂ (IAEA) inspectors investigating Iranâ€™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 â€“ including some enrichment capacity. In return for its commitments to the international community, Iran will expect â€śsignificant sanctions relief,â€ť 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.
â€śBoth sides are eager to have this go somewhere because itâ€™s never gone anywhere before, and neither side is happy with where things have gone in the diplomatic stalemate,â€ť says Melissa Labonte, a Middle East specialist at Fordham University in New York.
Kerryâ€™s meeting with Zarif reflects a diplomatic opening to Iran that President Obama has extended since the beginning of his presidency, Professor Labonte says â€“ an opening that may finally be tested.
â€śUp to this point, Obama has been pushing on a closed door,â€ť she says. Sending Kerry to hold even a brief one-on-one with the Iranian foreign minister â€śmay mean he feels like heâ€™s pushing on a more open door.â€ť