UNITED NATIONS (Reu-ters) – Iran and the United States held their highest-level substantive talks in a generation yesterday, saying the tone was positive but sounding cautious about resolving the long-running standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met after Zarif held wider talks with the United States and other major powers to address Western suspicions that Iran may be trying to develop atomic weapons.
Diplomats from the major countries described the atmosphere of the wider talks in positive terms, but they, as well as the US and Iranian foreign ministers, stressed the difficulty of resolving a dispute that has eluded solution for a decade.
“We had a very constructive meeting,” Kerry told reporters after the talks at the United Nations, where he and Zarif had sat next to one another in a gesture that suggested a desire by both sides to explore how to ease their more than three-decade estrangement. But Kerry added, “Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone, which was welcome, doesn’t answer those questions yet and there is a lot of work to be done.”
The United States wants Iran to address questions about its nuclear program, which Washington and its allies suspect is a cover for developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies that, saying its program is for solely peaceful, civilian uses.
Zarif, a US-educated diplomat, also sounded a cautionary note and insisted on quick relief from the painful US, European Union and UN sanctions imposed for Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.
“I am satisfied with this first step. Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so we can move forward,” he told reporters.
“Of course as we move forward, there has to be removal of sanctions and in the end game there has to be a total lifting of all sanctions and both bilateral sanctions, unilateral sanctions as well as multilateral sanctions and UN sanctions and we hope to be able to move in that direction within a short span of time.”
Kerry said Zarif had put some “possibilities” on the table, but stressed there was more work to be done.
It was a very uncommon encounter between top officials of the United States and Iran, which have been estranged since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the US-backed Shah.
A State Department official said it was the highest-level “official” meeting between US and Iranian officials since before the Iranian revolution, although there had been “informal” interactions at the same level in the past 10 to 12 years.”
Both Kerry and counterparts from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany described their meeting with Zarif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly as “a change in tone” from encounters with Iran’s previous, hardline government.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chaired the meeting, told reporters it had been “a substantial meeting. Good atmosphere. Energetic.”
She said the two sides had agreed on an “ambitious timetable” to address Western concerns and would meet again in Geneva on Oct 15 and 16 “to pursue the agenda to carry on from today’s meeting and to hopefully move this process forward.”