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.
While the talks yesterday went well, the test will come when detailed negotiations resume in Geneva Oct. 15, the diplomats said. During the session at the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met one-on-one for 30 minutes with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, the highest-level formal talks between the U.S. and Iran since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Kerry said that Zarif’s presentation was “very different in tone and very different in the vision” of the future on questions about Iran’s nuclear activities.
“Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone, which was welcome, doesn’t answer those questions yet” about Iran’s cooperation on the nuclear issue, Kerry said yesterday. Zarif “did put some possibilities on the table,” Kerry said.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the U.K.’s William Hague both said the atmosphere was better than in previous talks, though Westerwelle said, “We are looking for actions.”
The talks were “very good and substantive,” Zarif said later, as he joined new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who was addressing the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society in New York.
There was an agreement to “jump-start the process so we could move forward with a view to agree first on the parameters of the endgame,” Zarif said.
He described his one-on-one conversation with Kerry as “more than a chat.” Kerry said the talk was about “how to proceed.”
Iran wants to reach and fully implement a nuclear deal within a year, according to a State Department official who asked not to be named because the talks were private.
Zarif’s meeting was with the foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the U.S., Russia, U.K., France and China, plus Germany -- known as the P5+1 group, which includes Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Joking that he first thought his timetable might be too ambitious, Zarif said he “saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to go faster.”
Rouhani, who took office in August, has 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 a nuclear weapons capability.
Expectations are high among Iranians who voted for Rouhani that he’ll improve relations with the world and bring relief to the economy by winning an end to international financial sanctions imposed because of Iran’s failure to address concerns over its nuclear program.
In his UN address earlier 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 possibility of using its nuclear program to develop weapons.
“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 who is 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 yesterday 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.
The ultimate authority that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has over the country’s nuclear program also has prompted questions about what Rouhani can do.
“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, who was Obama’s top coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction until February.
Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst in Arlington, Virginia, for Rand Corp., said a “good chance” exists that diplomacy will be able to defuse the nuclear tensions.
“We shouldn’t expect Rouhani to reset U.S.-Iran relations,” he said. “That may not be possible. But Iran’s desire to lift sanctions and the U.S. goal to limit Iran’s nuclear program provides a point of convergence between the two countries.”
The U.S. and Israel, which views an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, have threatened military action if negotiations fail. 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.
Iran’s decades-old nuclear program has cost the country an estimated $100 billion, including its investments in infrastructure as well as lost foreign investments and oil revenue due to sanctions, according to an April report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Rouhani said in a speech yesterday 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 forgo 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.