September 26, 2013

Diplomats hail new Iranian attitude in nuclear talks

The Associated Press

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Seated at the table, from left, are U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday.

The Associated Press

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"Words are not enough," he said. "Actions and tangible results are what counts. The devil is in the detail, so it is now important that we have substantial and serious negotiations very soon."

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 relief from sanctions that have slashed the country's vital oil exports, restricted its international bank transfers, devalued the currency and sent inflation surging.

Encouraged by signs that Rouhani will adopt a more moderate stance than Ahmadinejad, but skeptical that the country's all-powerful supreme leader will allow a change in course, President Barack Obama has directed Kerry to lead a new outreach and explore possibilities for resolving the long-standing dispute.

Rouhani has come across as a more moderate face of the hard-line clerical regime in Tehran and his 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.

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.

On Thursday, he called for worldwide disarmament of nuclear weapons as "our highest priority."

"No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons," he told the first-ever meeting of a U.N. forum on nuclear disarmament. He was speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of mostly developing countries.

He repeated the organization's long-standing demand that Israel join the international treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons.

Israel, which has repeatedly accused Iran of aspiring to build a nuclear bomb, is the only Mideast state that has not signed the landmark 1979 Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Rouhani appears to be trying to tone down Ahmadinejad's caustic rhetoric against Israel — a point of friction in relations with the U.S. But Israel is not biting and reacted angrily to his latest remarks.

"Iran's new president is playing an old and familiar game by trying to deflect attention from Iran's nuclear weapons program," said Intelligence and International Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. "The problem of the NPT in the Middle East is not with those countries which have not signed the NPT, but countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria which have signed the treaty and brazenly violated it," he added.

"Unlike Iran, Israel has never threatened the destruction of another country," he said.

Iran watchers say Rouhani may have limited time to reach a settlement — possibly a year or less — before Khamenei decides negotiations are fruitless. That may explain why Zarif has call to reach a deal in shortest timeframe possible.

Already, Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard force has grown increasingly uneasy over Rouhani's outreach to the West as well as his apparent backing from Khamenei, who has told the Guard to steer clear of politics.

The Guard has warned Rouhani about moving too fast on his overtures.

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