UNITED NATIONS -- In a diplomatic milestone, Secretary of State of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet here Thursday for talks that analysts say could pave the way for warmer U.S.-Iranian relations after a decades-long freeze.
The White House announced Monday that Kerry and Zarif would both attend the so-called P5+1 international talks over the future of Iran’s nuclear program on the sidelines of this week’s U.N. General Assembly.
Thursday’s encounter between Kerry, who was a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Zarif, a U.S.-educated former envoy to the U.N., will be the highest-level substantive meeting since the countries severed diplomatic ties following Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
In 2001, Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, met his Iranian counterpart at the U.N., but only for a handshake; Condoleeza Rice and then Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki managed to avoid any serious conversation during a 2007 international conference on Iraq.
Thursday’s meeting, however, will be about Iran, and analysts who specialize in U.S.-Iranian relations say the time could be right for steps toward a detente: The U.S. and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict but both are looking for a solution to the bloodshed, and Iran is feeling the burn from sanctions on its petroleum exports.
Thursday’s nuclear talks also will be the first since Iranians elected President Hassan Rouhani, who’s been called a reformer and a pragmatist, in stark contrast to his polarizing predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was known for broadsides against Israel and whose angry U.N. speeches sometimes sparked other world leaders to walk out.
“The fundamental driving force behind the change is the decision by Iranian citizens to elect a president who has been in favor of resolving the nuclear issue through diplomacy since its inception and made a point to make improved relations with the West a campaign promise because this is what he believes is best for Iran’s national interest,” Farideh Farhi, an Iran scholar at the University of Hawaii, wrote from Tehran in response to emailed questions.
Rouhani, who will address the U.N. on Tuesday, went on a charm offensive before his trip to New York, granting an interview to Ann Curry of NBC, penning an op-ed for The Washington Post, and releasing high-profile political prisoners.
At the U.N. General Assembly, Rouhani will provide what’s expected to be “a concrete and detailed manifesto for a new chapter in the relations between Iran and the rest of the world,” according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, citing Iranian diplomats.
The Iranian media has dubbed his push as “smile diplomacy,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted on his Twitter account.
But not everyone’s voiced approval. On the Iranian side, the powerful and ultraconservative Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a statement over the weekend warning against trusting the White House. Key U.S. allies are just as dubious – Israel’s been spoiling for pre-emptive strikes against archenemy Iran, and the last thing the Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia wants to see is a cozier relationship between its American friends and Iran’s Shiite theocracy.