Iran's Zarif meets Kerry to 'jump start' nuclear talks


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New York __ US Secretary of State John Kerry shook hands and met alone with Iran's new top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif for thirty minutes Thursday, in the highest level direct talks between the two countries in decades.

“We had a constructive meeting, and I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to possibilities of the future,” Kerry told journalists after the meeting.

“Now it’s up to people to do the hard work of trying to fill out what those possibilities could do,” Kerry said.

20130926-232156.jpgThe historic meeting between the top American and Iranian diplomats, with not even note takers present, took place in a room off to the side of a meeting of foreign ministers from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. When Zarif arrived, Ashton's deputy Helga Schmidt gave up her seat to him, placing Zarif between Ashton and Kerry. After Zarif made a twenty minute presentation to the group, Kerry leaned over to Zarif and suggested that they might meet privately, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

“We had more than a chat,” Zarif said after the meeting Thursday. “Now we have to match our words with action.”

He said the parties had agreed to try to reach a negotiated settlement on Iran's nuclear program within a year. “We agreed to jump-start the process so that we could move forward with a view to agree, first, on the parameters of the end game, how we want to proceed [regarding] Iran's nuclear program, in a year's time, and also to think about steps, starting with a first step, that should be implemented in order to address the immediate concerns of two sides, and move towards finalizing it hopefully within a year's time,” Zarif said.

“I'm optimistic,” Zarif said, speaking at the end of an event featuring Iranian President Hassan Rouhani convened by the Council on Foreign Relations and Asia Society Thursday. “This was a good beginning. I sense that Secretary Kerry and President Obama want to resolve this.”

Zarif “made a thoughtful presentation, he laid out what Iran's interests were, … and expressed a desire to come to an agreement and have it fully implemented in a year's time,” the senior State Department official said Thursday, stressing again that Zarif proposed both reaching and implementing a nuclear deal within a year.

“He laid out some thoughts that he had, what a process may look like, what elements might be in a first step,” the US official said. “Certainly some important things have happened here today.”

Ashton and Zarif along with political directors from the P5+1 will next meet October 15-16 in Geneva. The new Iranian leaders quickly agreed to a date and venue for the nuclear talks, whereas the former team would spend weeks negotiating over such logistical details, the State Department official said.

“Like the Minister [Zarif], I am very ambitious for what we can do,” Ashton said after the meeting. “But we all know that we have to be very practical in translating political ambition into…effective work on the ground.”

A proposed confidence-building measure presented by the six parties to Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last February “remains on the table,” Ashton continued. “Either the Iranian government can decide to respond directly to that, or it can put forward its own proposals.” She proposed that Iran shares its ideas before the next meeting in Geneva.

“If the Iranians agreed to establish a US-Iran channel on the margins of the P5+1, it's a good sign,” former top Obama nonproliferation advisor Gary Samore, president of United Against a Nuclear Iran [UANI], told Al-Monitor Thursday.

Barbara Slavin contributed reporting.

(Photo: European Union. Second photo: Jason DeCrow/AP.)