World powers and Iran agreed Thursday to pursue what appears to be the most promising bid in years to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, an effort that was boosted by a brief but unprecedented face-to-face meeting between the United States and the Islamic Republic after more than three decades of hostility.
The ambitious initiative, reached on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, aims to seal within months a negotiated settlement that meets Iran’s demands for access to peaceful nuclear technology and an end to devastating sanctions, while dispelling international fears that Tehran is using its program to hide the development of nuclear weapons.
Such an accord could give a massive boost to resolutions of other disputes – from the civil war in Syria to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis – perhaps eventually ending in a restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran that were severed in 1980.
Secretary of State John Kerry, echoing comments by his European counterparts, praised what he called the “constructive meeting” and said a presentation by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif “was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to the possibilities for the future.”
Kerry, Zarif and the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of the dispute during their 45-minute talks, agreeing only to resume the discussions in Geneva on Oct. 15.
Instead, the most significant development came after the session broke up when Kerry – who sat next to Zarif during the meeting and posed for a photograph in which both men smiled broadly – briefly met one on one with his Iranian counterpart.
The meeting was the most substantive between the United States and Iran since diplomatic ties were cut after students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, precipitating the 444-day hostage crisis and igniting decades of hostility, mistrust and tension.
The top diplomats of the United States and Iran last met face to face in 2001, when former Secretary of State Colin Powell shook hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi after a meeting on Afghanistan at the United Nations. But they went no further.
Speaking later to reporters in English, Zarif said that he and Kerry “stressed the need to continue these discussions, to give it the political emphasis that it requires and hopefully to reach a conclusion within a reasonable time.”
The U.S.-educated Iranian diplomat, who served for years as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, pronounced himself “satisfied with this first step. Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so that we can move forward.”
“We took a moment to explore a little further the possibilities of how to proceed,” Kerry said after emerging from the meeting. “And so we’ve agreed to try to continue the process that will make concrete and find a way to answer the questions that people have about Iran’s nuclear program.”
The one-on-one talk was remarkable for its symbolism. It showed that both President Barack Obama and his newly elected Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, are prepared to risk considerable political capital in a diplomatic initiative that could encounter resistance at home and from some of their most important foreign allies. In the U.S. case that means Israel and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states who feel threatened by Shiite Iran’s nuclear program.
It also appeared to give weight to pledges by Rouhani, a Shiite Muslim cleric, before and after his unexpected election victory in June to seek a negotiated resolution to the nuclear dispute, win an end to the international sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy and end its diplomatic isolation.
His charm offensive marked an abrupt turnaround from the combative and poisonous atmosphere that prevailed during talks between Iran and the world powers under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But Kerry noted that an agreement is not certain and that the United States and its partners will demand that Iran account for the history of its program, including evidence that it researched nuclear weapons until at least late 2003.
“One meeting and a change in tone, which was welcome, doesn’t answer those questions yet. There is a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s chief of foreign affairs, noted the “change in the dynamic.” And she recalled comments that Rouhani made to her earlier in the week that Iran would like to resolve the standoff within three months.
“The question is how far you can go in three months, or six months or 12 months, and 12 months is a good timeframe to think about some serious implementation on the ground,” she said.
Kerry said that “we’ll have to see” whether he will attend the meeting in Geneva. Zarif said that he would be there, adding, “Who else will be present is up to them.”
Though none of the participants reported any substantial breakthroughs during the meeting, Zarif indicated that Iran may be prepared to abandon its public demand for an immediate end to the sanctions and accept a phased lifting of measures imposed by the U.N. Security Council as well as by individual countries.
“We believe that sanctions are counterproductive in addition to being not grounded in international law and, of course, as we move forward, there has to be removal of sanctions and in the endgame there has to be a total lifting off all sanctions, both bilateral sanctions and unilateral sanctions as well as multilateral sanctions and U.N. sanctions,” he said.
The multiple levels of sanctions have seriously reduced Iran’s oil exports and cut the country off from the international banking system,
Iran has defied four U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend its uranium enrichment program and has continued to install advanced centrifuges, the machines at the heart of the enrichment process.
It also has refused for years to answer questions from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency about the nuclear watchdog’s concerns over a “possible military dimension” of its program, including research into a missile-borne nuclear warhead and a conventional explosive triggering system.
The IAEA says it is unable to verify that Iran isn’t hiding a weapons program.
The United States, which has threatened to use military force to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb, and its partners in the so-called P5-plus-1 – a reference to the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany – have offered no more than a symbolic easing of sanctions in return for Iran limiting its program to 5 percent enriched uranium – sufficient for power reactors.
They have also demanded that Iran ship abroad a stockpile of near 20 percent enriched uranium, which can quickly be turned into weapons fuel, and shut down its Fordow centrifuge plant, near the holy city of Qom, which is located inside a mountain nearly impervious to airstrikes.
Ashton said that the offer “remains on the table.”
“Either the Iranian government can choose to respond directly to that or it can put forward its own proposals,” she said. “What we’ve asked for is for as much notice as possible for proposals so that when we get to Geneva we can properly respond.”
Iran concealed its enrichment program, which is based on technology and knowhow purchased from a Pakistani-run international smuggling ring, from U.N. inspectors for 18 years.
Experts said that the key to a breakthrough lies in the “sequencing” of reciprocal steps each side would take as part of an accord designed to verify that Iran isn’t pursuing nuclear weapons.
“Everything is timing,” said Michael Adler, an expert with the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington policy institute. “Nobody wants to get caught out. Nobody wants the other guy to pocket a concession. And you have to make sure that Iran is in the groove for real.”