UNITED NATIONS — Iran started talks on Thursday with six world powers on its disputed nuclear program as U.S. officials tried to tamp down expectations of any quick breakthrough.
The meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly marks the highest-level direct contact between the United States and Iran in six years as Secretary of State John Kerry comes face-to-face with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. It aims to pave the way for the first round of substantive nuclear negotiations since April. That round is expected in October in Geneva.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif, both in New York this week to attend the U.N. General Assembly, have said they are anxious to clinch an agreement quickly that could bring their country relief from punishing international sanctions.
But the U.S. insists Rouhani must back up his calls for moderation with actions that verify Iran is not seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.
In Washington, the White House resisted putting a timeline on the nuclear negotiations.
“We’re not expecting any breakthrough in this initial meeting,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “But this is part of us testing the seriousness of the Iranians, who are obviously engaging in new overtures and showing new interest in trying to solve this very serious matter.”
Encouraged by signs that Rouhani will adopt a more moderate stance than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but skeptical that the country’s all-powerful supreme leader will allow a change in course, President Barack Obama has directed Secretary of State John Kerry to lead a new outreach and explore possibilities for resolving the long-standing dispute.
Kerry predicted the meeting would be worthwhile. Asked what he would need to hear from the Iranians to show that they’re serious, he said: “I’ll let you know after they’ve been serious.”
Rouhani’s pronouncements at the U.N. have raised guarded hopes that progress might be possible. But they have also served as a reminder that the path to that progress will not be quick or easy.
In his speech to world leaders at the U.N. on Tuesday, he 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 long demanded a halt to enrichment, fearing Tehran could secretly build nuclear warheads. They have imposed sanctions over Iran’s refusal to halt enrichment. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used as fuel for nuclear energy but at higher levels, it can be used to make a nuclear weapon.
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.
The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany are participating in the talks at the U.N., with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton leading the talks.
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.