September 24, 2013

U.S.-Iran talks seen as possible ice-breaker

Thursday's meeting on Iran's nuclear program will be the highest level since the nations cut diplomatic ties in 1979.

By HANNAH ALLAM McClatchy Washington Bureau

UNITED NATIONS – Secretary of State of John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet here Thursday for talks that analysts say could pave the way for warmer U.S.-Iranian relations after a decades-long freeze.

John Kerry
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Secretary of State of John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet at the United Nation on Thursday for the highest level of talks since the nations cut diplomatic ties in 1979.

AP

The White House announced Monday that Kerry and Zarif would both attend the P5-plus-1 international talks over the future of Iran's nuclear program on the sidelines of this week's U.N. General Assembly meeting.

Thursday's encounter between Kerry, who was a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Zarif, a U.S.-educated former envoy to the U.N., will be the highest-level meeting since the countries severed diplomatic ties after Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. In 2001, Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, met his Iranian counterpart at the U.N., but only for a handshake.

Analysts who specialize in U.S.-Iranian relations say the time is right for steps toward a detente: The U.S. and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict but both are looking for a way to end the violence, and Iran is feeling the burn from sanctions on its petroleum exports.

Thursday's talks also will be the first since Iranians elected President Hassan Rouhani, who's been called a reformer and a pragmatist, in contrast to his polarizing predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was known for broadsides against Israel and whose angry U.N. speeches sometimes sparked other world leaders to walk out.

"The fundamental driving force behind the change is the decision by Iranian citizens to elect a president who has been in favor of resolving the nuclear issue through diplomacy since its inception and made a point to make improved relations with the West a campaign promise because this is what he believes is best for Iran's national interest," Farideh Farhi, an Iran scholar at the University of Hawaii, wrote from Tehran in response to emailed questions.

Rouhani, who will address the U.N. on Tuesday, went on a charm offensive before his trip to New York, granting an interview to Ann Curry of NBC, writing an op-ed for The Washington Post, and releasing high-profile political prisoners.

Not everyone approves. On the Iranian side, the powerful and ultraconservative Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a statement over the weekend warning against trusting the White House. Key U.S. allies are just as dubious -- Israel's been spoiling for pre-emptive strikes against archenemy Iran, and the last thing the Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia wants to see is a cozier relationship between its American friends and Iran's Shiite theocracy.

The Obama administration needs Israeli and Saudi support for separate diplomatic initiatives -- reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and negotiating a political solution to the Syrian civil war -- so officials will have to consider how far to walk through this opening.

Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who's now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a commentary Monday that the United States should explore the opportunity but bear in mind that such a move could "weaken the trust" of Arab allies, Israel, Turkey and European states, especially amid criticism of the U.S. handling of Egypt and "serious weakness and indecision" on Syria and Iraq.

"These reservations already range from popular conspiracy theories that the United States intends to betray the Arab world for Iran, to serious distrust by every friendly Arab government," Cordesman wrote.

Some of the most vocal criticism of any move toward rapprochement comes from Congress. Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., on Monday released a letter they sent to President Obama advising him to proceed with caution on Iran, whose nuclear program has raised concern that it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon.

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