Foreign ministers from the U.S. and five other powers met with Iran’s top diplomat to see whether the Islamic Republic’s new administration is serious about resolving disputes over its nuclear program.
The meeting at the United Nations today represented the highest-level formal talks between the U.S. and Iran since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It came after President Hassan Rouhani, who took office last month, asserted a desire to resolve tensions over his nation’s nuclear program, which the U.S. and its European allies say is being used to develop nuclear weapons capability.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and their counterparts from five other nations, as well as Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the U.K.’s William Hague both said there was an improvement in atmosphere from previous talks, though Westerwelle said words aren’t enough and “we are looking for actions.”
In an address to the United Nations this week, Rouhani, 64, said Iran is ready to enter talks “without delay” to demonstrate that the nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
While his remarks were less confrontational than speeches by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the U.S. and other nations are eager to test whether Iran has shifted on substance and is ready to take actions to foreclose the weapons option. More detailed talks are scheduled in Geneva in mid-October.
“Rouhani has a big interest in moving quickly to show that he can get sanctions relief, but whether he can deliver the roll-back in their program that we will need for that remains to be seen,” said Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama’s former adviser on Iran, and now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“What is clear is that the era of small for small is over,” Ross said in an interview, referring to past proposals for minor concessions in return for limited sanctions relief. “Either the deal must be big for big or it won’t happen.”
The early signs raise questions about whether Rouhani has fueled expectations that are outpacing the reality. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency circulated a document today in which Iran stuck to its positions, including barring inspectors from visiting the Parchin military base to investigate whether tests were conducted there related to triggering a nuclear device.
No Dramatic Change
Some Western analysts say they’re uncertain what Rouhani can do, in part because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ultimate authority over the country’s nuclear program.
“I haven’t seen a dramatic change in what they’re willing to offer, or on the limits to what they’re willing to do” said Gary Samore, Obama’s top coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction until February.
The U.S. and Israel have threatened military action if negotiations fail to ensure Iran can’t obtain nuclear weapons. Israel has said enrichment should be halted and most of Iran’s enriched uranium -- which could be further processed to make fuel for a bomb -- should be removed from the country.
Rouhani was elected on a pledge of easing Iran’s international isolation and repairing an economy crippled by sanctions. Oil exports have dropped by half, to less than 1 million barrels a day, and inflation almost doubled in two years to 39 percent last month.
The new president said in a speech in New York today that Iran is “ready to work toward removing any ambiguity and answer any reasonable question about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.” He also said that Iran will never forego its “inherent right” to nuclear technology, including enrichment, and that sanctions aimed at changing its behavior will only punish ordinary citizens and poison the environment.