UNITED NATIONS — Amid signs of a possible thaw in relations between the United States and Iran, Thursday saw the highest-level meeting between the two adversaries in decades.
The meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif came during a previously scheduled ministerial engagement between the P5+1 — composed of France, Russia, China, Germany, Britain, and the U.S. — over Iran’s nuclear program. It was only on Monday that it was announced that Zarif would also be present at the meeting. According to reports and photographs from inside the room, not only did Kerry and Zarif shake hands, but the men were seated directly next to each other as the discussions went on.
Secretary Kerry told reporters afterwards that Zarif was “very different in tone and very different in the vision he held out with respect to the possibilities of the future.” The two met on the sidelines after the full meeting had concluded, Kerry said, to explore further just how to proceed so that all the outstanding questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be answered.
“Needless to say, one meeting and change in tone — which is welcome — doesn’t answer those questions yet,” he warned. “There’s a lot of work to be done. .. But I think all of us were pleased the Foreign Minister came today, that he did put some possibilities on the table, now its up to people to do the hard work of trying to fill what out the possibilities will do.”
Zarif himself also spoke with reporters following the meeting’s end. “We had a very constructive initial meeting of the the EU3+3 or 5+1, whatever you want to call it,” “The discussions were very substantive, business like.” Zarif also said that he believed that the ultimate goal of the negotiations was sanction relief for Iran, whose economy has been crippled under embargoes from the United States as well as the United Nations Security Council. “We believe that sanctions are counterproductive, as well as being not founded in international law,” he said.
It is hard to overstate how historic this meeting was, given that it’s the highest-level meeting between officials between the two countries since the Iranian revolution in 1979. While meetings have taken place between lower-level officials there are no diplomatic ties between the countries, making such encounters few and far between. It was hoped earlier this week that President Barack Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani would have a staged encounter on the sidelines of the United Nations, as both spoke on Tuesday. However, according to the White House, Iran rejected an offer for such a run-in as the time was not quite right.
More broadly, the tone in the room was a theme that was frequently repeated as the meeting broke up. As the ministers emerged, each of them painted a picture of extremely productive and largely positive session. “It was a substantive meeting, good atmosphere, energetic,” Cahterine Ashton, the European Union’s chief foreign policy official, told the press. “We had discussions about how to go forward with an ambition timeframe, to see whether we can make progress.” The figures discussed, Ashton said, as far as timelines go were ambitious. “The question is how far you can go in three months, or six months, or twelve months,” she said. “And twelve months is a good timeframe to think about serious implementation on the ground.
She also noted that the confidence-building measures that the P5+1 had put forward remain on the table, but Iran was still free to put forward their own proposals. Those proposals would have to come as soon as possible before the next official talks between the P-5+1 and Iran, which are now set to take place in Geneva from October 15–16, Ashton announced.