Iran takes charm offensive to U.N., agrees to nuclear talks

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherin Ashton

(Reuters) – Iran’s new government took its diplomatic charm offensive to the United Nations on Monday and agreed to new talks with six world powers – including the United States – on its nuclear program during this week’s gathering of world leaders in New York.

That meeting with Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif will involve U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which is highly unusual given that the United States has not maintained diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980.

The announcement of the planned talks, after a meeting between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Zarif, raised hopes that the annual United Nations General Assembly could bring a thaw in relations between arch-enemies Iran and the United States.

Ashton told reporters that Zarif would join the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany at a meeting that has been scheduled for Thursday to discuss the Iranian nuclear program, which is at the heart of tensions between Tehran and the West.

The West believes Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons and is determined to stop this, imposing tough economic sanctions. Iran says it is not trying to produce a bomb but has insisted on its right to enrich uranium for the purpose of peaceful energy production.

High-level contacts between both the United States and Iran are extremely rare. The last time that a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister spoke face-to-face appears to have been more than six years ago.

In May 2007, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear she was open to talking to her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, at an international conference in Egypt, but the encounter amounted to pleasantries over ice cream.

U.S. officials have said a meeting is also possible on the sidelines of the U.N. assembly between President Barack Obama and Iran’s newly elected centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who has shown an apparent desire to take a more conciliatory approach towards the West since taking office last month.

If it happens, it would be the first between U.S. and Iranian government heads since before the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, and could help ease tensions in the Middle East that have been worsening given the crisis in Syria.

Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a U.S. foe whose country has been torn by civil war since 2011.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States is ready to work with Rouhani if his government engages seriously in efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

“Secretary Kerry welcomes the Foreign Minister’s commitment to a substantive response and to his agreement to meeting in the short term with permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany coordinated by EU High Representative Ashton to discuss the nuclear program,” Psaki said.

The EU, led by bloc’s top diplomat Ashton, has chaired the talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, as well as Germany – which have made little headway in spite of years of negotiations.

Ashton said the meeting in New York would be “short discussions,” and added that she would represent the P5+1 in a meeting with Zarif in Geneva in October.

‘ENERGY AND DETERMINATION’

Ashton said she had “a good and constructive discussion” in what was the first face-to-face meeting with Zarif.

Asked about the possibility of a relaxation of sanctions on Iran – which some analysts see as the reason for a more conciliatory approach from the Iranians – Ashton said: “What I saw today was energy and determination to try and move forward in our talks.”

“Many things go from that. But this was a first meeting in order to establish how we would work together. I don’t add any more to it than that,” Ashton added.

Asked if Zarif had made any mention of the possibility of Iran suspending its uranium enrichment as the West has demanded – and whether the negotiating effort could be on the verge of a breakthrough – Ashton said: “We didn’t talk about the detail of what we would do.”

Ashton added, “In terms of whether we are on the verge of breakthrough, I would put it like this: I was struck, as I said, by the energy and determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me.”

She said she looked for every opportunity to resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, adding: “I hope this will be one.”

Speaking before his trip to New York, Rouhani said on Monday he would use his visit to the United Nations to present the “true face of Iran” and to pursue talks and cooperation with the West to end the nuclear dispute.

“Unfortunately in recent years the face of Iran, a great and civilized nation, has been presented in another way,” Rouhani said, according to comments published on his official website.

“I and my colleagues will take the opportunity to present the true face of Iran as a cultured and peace-loving country,” he added.

Rouhani did not make clear who he blames for any distortion of Iran’s image. But the comments suggest he is intent on distancing himself from the controversial, outspoken approach to the West adopted by predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator under reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, also targeted the West over sanctions he said had resulted in suffering.

“On this trip, I will try to deliver the voice of the oppressed people of Iran to the world, and we should say that sanctions are an illegal and unacceptable path,” he said.

“The West should opt for the path of talks and cooperation and consider mutual interests.”

Rouhani has vowed to improve Iran’s ailing economy, which has suffered deeply as a result of the sanctions.

Last week, his tone was endorsed by Iran’s most powerful figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who spoke of “heroic flexibility,” suggesting a new willingness to engage in diplomacy with Iran’s adversaries.

Iranian media reported on Monday that authorities in Iran have pardoned 80 prisoners ahead of Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations. In a tentative sign that hardline policies are starting to soften following Rouhani’s inauguration last month, authorities freed prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and at least 10 other prisoners last week.

By Reuters

 

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