World leaders laud Iran's new tone on nuclear issue

Tehran has agreed to meet with international counterparts in Geneva next month to talk about Iran's nuclear program

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, share a table during a meeting of the foreign ministers representing the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 26, 2013.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The U.S. and its European allies said Thursday they were pleased by Iran's new tone and significant shift in attitude in talks aimed at resolving the impasse over the country's disputed nuclear activities. Iran said it was eager to dispel suspicions that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon and hopes to get strict international sanctions lifted as soon as possible.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had an unexpected one-on-one meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said six world powers and Iran agreed to fast-track nuclear negotiations with the hope of reaching a deal within a year.

Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany also agreed to hold a new round of substantive nuclear negotiations on Oct. 15 and 16 in Geneva.

"We agreed to jump-start the process so that we could move forward with a view to agreeing first on the parameters of the endgame ... and move toward finalizing it hopefully within a year's time," Zarif said after the talks. "I thought I was too ambitious, bordering on naiveté. But I saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to do it faster."

Kerry said he was struck by a "very different tone" from Tehran in their sessions, which marked the highest-level direct contact between the United States and Iran in six years. But, like his European colleagues, he stressed that a single meeting was not enough to assuage international concerns that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program.

"Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone that was welcome does not answer those questions," Kerry told reporters. "All of us were pleased that the foreign minister came today and that he did put some possibilities on the table."

He said they agreed to continue the process and try to find concrete ways to answer the questions that people have about Iran's nuclear activities.

Zarif and Kerry sat next to each other at a U-shaped table during a meeting of the P5+1 group, which had unsuccessfully attempted to address Iran's nuclear program since 2006.

Top diplomats from the United Kingdom, China, France, Germany and Russia were also present.

Previous meetings involved lower-level nuclear negotiators and technical teams, and Thursday's meeting of foreign ministers renewed hopes that stakeholder countries will pursue a diplomatic solution to the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

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Analysts have told Al Jazeera that easing sanctions -- imposed on Iran by the U.N. and U.S. after Tehran failed to comply with international regulations on uranium enrichment -- would play a key role in formulating a deal with Tehran that would enhance inspections and other safeguards against the weaponization of its nuclear program.

Zarif emphasized this point, saying sanctions must be removed "as we move forward" with an attempt at political resolution.

Describing Thursday's meeting, a U.S. official said Kerry and Zarif shook hands, and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they were cordial with each other. She also said the parties  greed to "go forward with an ambitious time frame."

Rumors circulated that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama would shake hands, in what would have been a symbol of their efforts toward diplomacy, at a lunch for world leaders hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday, but the prospect of diplomatic chatter at a meal where alcohol was served provided a reason for Rouhani to stay away, Iranian state media reported.

Still, Zarif said Thursday's meetings were "very constructive" and "very substantive."

"We hope to be able to make progress to solve this issue in a timely fashion (and) to make sure (there is) no concern that Iran's program is anything but peaceful," he said. "I am satisfied with this first step," he added. "Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so we can move forward."

A new Iran on the world stage

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was a "big improvement in the tone and spirit" from Iran compared with the previous government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said a "window of opportunity has opened" for a peaceful resolution of the situation. He too insisted that Iran's words would have to be matched by actions.

"Actions and tangible results are what counts," he said. "The devil is in the details, so it is now important that we have substantial and serious negotiations very soon."

Rouhani and Zarif have said they are anxious to quickly reach an agreement that could bring relief from sanctions that have slashed the country's vital oil exports, restricted its international bank transfers, devalued the currency and sent inflation surging.

Encouraged by signs that Rouhani will adopt a more moderate stance than Ahmadinejad but skeptical that the country's all-powerful supreme leader will allow a change in course, Obama has directed Kerry to lead a new outreach and explore possibilities for resolving the long-standing dispute.

Rouhani has come across as more moderate than the hard-line clerics in the Islamic Republic, and his pronouncements at the U.N. have raised guarded hopes that progress is possible. But they have also served as a reminder that the path will not be quick or easy.

Meanwhile, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held "constructive" talks on Friday and said they would meet again in a month's time, signalling hope of finding an end to nearly two years of deadlock over Tehran's atomic program. 

Herman Nackaerts, IAEA deputy director general, said the discussions, at Iran's diplomatic mission, had been "very constructive" but gave no details. 

At the next meeting on Oct. 28, Iran and the IAEA would "start substantial discussions on the way forward to resolve all outstanding issues," he said.

In his speech to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday, Rouhani repeated Iran's long-standing demand that any nuclear agreement must recognize the country's right under international treaties to continue enriching uranium.

The U.S. and its allies have from the outset demanded a halt to enrichment, fearing Tehran could secretly build nuclear warheads, and have imposed sanctions over Iran's refusal to do so. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used as fuel for nuclear energy, but at higher levels it can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Rouhani also insisted that any deal be contingent on all other nations' declaring their nuclear programs, too, are solely for peaceful purposes -- alluding to the U.S. and Israel.

Those conditions underscored that there is still a large chasm to be bridged in negotiations.

Rouhani has made a series of appearances and speeches since arriving in New York and has held bilateral negotiations with France, Turkey and Japan, among others.

On Thursday he called for worldwide nuclear disarmament as "our highest priority."

"No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons," he told the first-ever meeting of a U.N. forum on nuclear disarmament. He was speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of mostly developing countries.

He repeated the organization's demand that Israel join the international treaty restricting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Israel, which has repeatedly accused Iran of aspiring to build a nuclear bomb, is the only Middle Eastern state that has not signed the landmark 1979 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Rouhani appears to be trying to tone down Ahmadinejad's caustic rhetoric against Israel --a point of friction in relations with the United States. But Israel remains skeptical and reacted angrily to Rouhani's latest remarks.

"Iran's new president is playing an old and familiar game by trying to deflect attention from Iran's nuclear weapons program," said Intelligence and International Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. "The problem of the NPT in the Middle East is not with those countries which have not signed the NPT but countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria which have signed the treaty and brazenly violated it," he said.

 "Unlike Iran, Israel has never threatened the destruction of another country," he said.

Iran watchers say Rouhani may have limited time to reach a settlement -- possibly a year or less -- before Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides negotiations are fruitless. That may explain why Zarif has called for a deal in shortest time possible.

Already, Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard has grown increasingly uneasy over Rouhani's outreach to the West as well as his apparent backing from Khamenei, who has told the it to steer clear of politics.

The Revolutionary Guard has warned Rouhani about moving too quickly with his overtures.

Lisa De Bode contributed to this report, with Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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