US, Iran foreign ministers to hold first nuclear talks

UNITED NATIONS: In a stunning diplomatic breakthrough, the foreign ministers of arch rivals, the United States and Iran, will hold their first talks on Tehran’s contested nuclear drive at a landmark meeting on Thursday.

Secretary of State John Kerry and new Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will join counterparts from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia at the meeting at the United Nations headquarters, US officials said Monday.

High-level contacts between Iranian and US officials have been rare since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But in another sign of a possible thaw, the White House said it was not ruling out a meeting between President Barack Obama and new Iranian counterpart Hassan Rowhani on the sidelines of this week’s UN General Assembly.

The encounter between Zarif and Kerry comes as Iran calls for the easing of crippling international sanctions over its uranium enrichment.

Rowhani said in a US television interview last week that Iran would “never” build a nuclear bomb.

But the United States and its allies still believe Tehran wants that capability and are waiting for signs that Rowhani is serious about better relations.

The talks “will give our ministers a sense of their level of seriousness and whether they are coming with concrete new proposals and whether this charm offensive actually has substance to it,” a senior US State Department official said.

The US-educated Zarif, whose knowledge of Western culture has endeared him to foreign diplomats, confirmed Thursday’s meeting on his Facebook page.

Zarif said he spoke to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton of Iran’s “political will as well as a conceptual framework to reach a solution that would ensure the Iranian people’s rights and would lift the sanctions.”

“It is evident from her post-meeting interview that she took it postively,” Zarif commented on the social media site.

The United States, which has spearheaded an international drive to cut Iran’s oil exports, has insisted it will not lift sanctions without progress.

Ashton, who has led Western efforts to engage with Tehran, said she was “struck by the energy and determination” of Zarif but added: “As you would appreciate, there is a huge amount of work to do.”