UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) — Iran's new government began its first talks on its nuclear program with the United States and five other world powers on Thursday, with the Iranian foreign minister taking a seat next to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a rare high-level contact between the two long-estranged nations.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went into talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly with Kerry as well as counterparts from Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany at a session aimed at jump-starting efforts to resolve a decade-long standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
It was a very uncommon encounter between top officials of the United States and Iran, which have been estranged since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah. Thursday's meeting was the first between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister since a brief encounter in May 2007.
Ahead of the talks, Kerry said he looked forward to a "good meeting" - the first involving the newly elected Iranian government of centrist President Hassan Rouhani - but would not specify what Iran should do to show a genuine desire to address concerns about its nuclear program.
A senior U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States did not expect any issues to be resolved at the meeting, but added: "We are hopeful that we can continue to chart a path forward.
"We hope that this new Iranian government will show that it is prepared to engage substantively to address these long- standing concerns and we will see today and in months ahead whether they will follow words with action," the official said.
Zarif is a U.S.-educated diplomat appointed by Rouhani to head negotiations on the nuclear issue with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, known as the P5+1.
A moderate cleric, Rouhani has stepped up efforts to moderate Iran's image abroad during his visit to New York this week. He has said that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons - despite Western suspicions that it is seeking to do so - and called for a nuclear deal in three to six months. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes only.
Even without making any real concessions so far, Rouhani has offered a softer, more reasonable tone than his stridently anti-U.S. predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Addressing a U.N. meeting on nuclear disarmament on Thursday, Rouhani said: "No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons."
But Rouhani also seized the opportunity to take a swipe at Iran's arch-foe Israel, which has accused him of trying to fool the world and buy time to continue its nuclear advances.
Rouhani said Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, was the reason for the failure of international efforts to establish the region as a nuclear weapons-free zone.
Just hours before the start of the talks, Kerry secured agreement from his Chinese counterpart calling for Iran to respond positively to existing nuclear proposals by the six world powers, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. comments suggested that President Barack Obama's administration intends to deal cautiously with Rouhani's overtures, avoiding any major concessions unless Iran takes concrete steps to show it is serious about curbing its nuclear ambitions. Rouhani is seeking an easing of crippling international sanctions.
"Both the U.S. and China believe that Iran should cooperate with the P5+1 and should respond positively to the proposals that are on the table," a U.S. official said.
The six powers said in February that they want Iran to stop enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, ship out some stockpiles and shutter a facility where such enrichment work is done. In return, they offered relief on international sanctions on Iran's petrochemicals and trade in gold and other precious metals.
Rouhani's gestures since taking office in August have raised hopes for a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran after years of estrangement and for a resolution of the dispute on Iran's nuclear program.
But signaling some of the obstacles that could hamper any new diplomacy, Iran on Thursday sharply criticized the U.N. nuclear watchdog over "baseless allegations" about its atomic activity.
It was an apparent reference to the International Atomic Energy Agency's concerns, spelled out in a series of quarterly reports, about what it calls the possible military dimensions to Iranian nuclear activities.
Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced Rouhani's gestures as the basis for a possible nuclear deal and challenged him to demonstrate his sincerity.
The failure to orchestrate a handshake between the two leaders, apparently due to Rouhani's concerns about a backlash from hardliners at home and possibly Obama's concerns about the possibility of a failed overture, underscored how hard it will be to make diplomatic progress.
Asked what he needed to hear from the Iranians to show they were serious about addressing those concerns, Kerry told reporters: "I'll let you know after they've been serious."
A U.S. official said the U.S.-China meeting discussed "elements of the diplomatic track, as well as the sanctions track." Kerry also met with diplomats from Libya and Pakistan on Thursday.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is hosting the P5+1 meeting, met Rouhani earlier on Thursday.
Abbas Araqchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, told Press TV, Iran's state-owned English-language broadcaster that it was certain there was "a new will emerging both in Iran and among the P5+1 states to successfully conclude the new round of talks with a new approach."
Iranians are hoping to see some tangible steps taken by the Western powers - namely relief from the painful U.S., European Union and U.N. sanctions for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Iranian oil exports have fallen by around 60 percent in the past two years as the EU stopped purchases completely and most Asian buyers drastically cut imports because of sanctions. Iran is now earning around $100 million from oil sales a day as opposed to $250 million two years ago.