UNITED NATIONS – 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 Iran 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 F. Kerry, echoing comments by his European counterparts, praised what he called the “constructive meeting.” He 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 – met briefly 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 Thursday to reporters in English, Zarif said 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.”
The one-on-one talk was remarkable for its symbolism. It showed that President Obama and his newly elected Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, are prepared to risk considerable political capital in a diplomatic initiative that could encounter resistance at home.