NEW YORK – Direct talks between the United States and Iran have eluded their governments for more than three decades, but that will come to an end this week in New York as their top diplomats meet to discuss a negotiated settlement over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
When US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif meet on Thursday during the 68th United Nations General Assembly, the two parties will be breaking ground simply by sitting at the same table together.
Kerry has spent the past month warning members of Congress that Iran is watching Washington’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which crossed a well established, oft-repeated American redline on the production, proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction.
Kerry said the US must show Iran that its government is ready and willing to use force to enforce what it considers a pillar of international order.
But he will have to reinforce that in person with Zarif, who recently took over Iran’s nuclear portfolio and has, in the past, displayed a compatibility with his Western counterparts.
“Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Kerry told senators last month during the Syria crisis, as he pressed for military strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Hoping for another, perhaps more intentional diplomatic breakthrough than the Russian-brokered deal on Syria – on an issue US President Barack Obama has called more urgent to American national security interests – Kerry is expected to press Zarif on an immediate suspension of uranium enrichment to 20 percent and the closure of the Fordow nuclear facility, burrowed in a mountain and naturally fortified from attack.
Zarif is expected to approach talks with an openness to an interim deal that would keep Iran’s extensive program intact while providing sanctions relief after punishing financial restrictions have taken a devastating toll on Iran’s economy.
Iran’s diplomatic gestures thus far, leading up to the General Assembly since the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani in August, have been peripheral to the nuclear program itself.
Iran has released prisoners, exchanged letters with the US and delayed the fueling of their plutonium reactor in Arak, but it made no moves to slow down its uranium centrifuges; in fact, it has installed more advanced devices that can enrich uranium at a more efficient pace.
If its government so chooses, Iran could produce enough weaponsgrade uranium for one or two nuclear bombs, experts say.
Zarif’s stance going into Thursday’s meeting will likely be outlined in Rouhani’s speech on Tuesday, much anticipated by US officials.
In years past, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad would prompt a walkout by US and Israeli diplomats.