UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State of State 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.
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; Condoleezza Rice and then Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki managed to avoid any serious conversation during a 2007 international conference on Iraq.
Thursday's meeting, however, will be about Iran, and analysts who specialize in U.S.-Iranian relations say the time could be 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 solution to the bloodshed, 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 stark 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 Barack Obama advising him to proceed with caution on Iran, whose nuclear program has raised concern that it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
The letter said Iran had quintupled its stockpile of low enriched uranium since 2009 and was racing toward completion of the Fordow enrichment facility by more than doubling the number of centrifuges there since July 2012.
The senators said the evidence signals that “Iran is very much in hot pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” and they urged Obama to stop it. The message they’d like to see delivered in any U.S.-Iran talks is that the nuclear program “will not be tolerated.”
“That’s the rub. Can Obama, even if he wants to, lift the sanctions the Iranians care about?” said Geneive Abdo, a former journalist who lived in Iran and is now an Iran specialist at the Stimson Center research institute in Washington.
Abdo said Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and ultimate authority in the country, has indicated for months that he’d like to see some sanctions lifted, in particular European Union blocks on petroleum exports that severely cut Iran’s sales and deprived it of hard currency. Abdo said Iran, now forced to barter for goods with other countries, isn’t interested in a deal that doesn’t include major changes in trade restrictions.
“If they say, ‘Oh, we’ll have academic exchanges and allow you to sell your carpets and pistachios,’ that’s not going to work,” Abdo said.
Abdo added that it’s unclear how far the Iranians would be willing to go in their own concessions. One theory is that they might bargain away support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in return for Western powers dropping their insistence that Iran stop enriching uranium or close down a nuclear facility.
“Iran might come to the table and say, ‘OK, Assad will leave power in 2014, and that’s our sacrifice,’” Abdo said.
Talks on Iran’s nuclear program have stalled for years, with Iran flouting U.N. orders for it to halt uranium enrichment while trying to persuade the world that its program is for peaceful purposes, such as electricity generation, and not construction of weapons.
Obama administration officials have handled news of the Kerry-Zarif meeting gingerly, working to reassure skeptics at home and abroad. U.S. officials stress that, for now, there are no plans for a U.N. encounter between Obama and Rouhani.
“Secretary Kerry will be meeting with his P5-plus-1 counterparts as well as the Iranian foreign minister, so that’s an opportunity for us to reaffirm, together with our P5-plus-1 partners, the importance of Iran coming in line with international obligations,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
Rhodes added: “But we have no meeting scheduled with President Rouhani, though, as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we don’t rule out that type of engagement.”
Jonathan S. Landay and Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.