U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad… (Jason DeCrow / Associated…)
UNITED NATIONS — The top diplomats of the United States and Iran on Thursday held their first substantive meeting since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hoping that within six months they can come to terms on Iran's disputed nuclear ambitions and find a new foundation for their relationship after decades of antagonism.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry sat down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and diplomats from five other world powers on the sidelines of the United Nations' annual gathering to determine whether a new Iranian government and Washington "can continue to chart a way forward," a senior Obama administration official said before the meeting.
Kerry said afterward that the meeting had been "constructive." He and Zarif spoke separately for about half an hour during the gathering.
"We had more than a chat," Zarif said later, suggesting the talk was substantive.
The six nations and Iran agreed to a formal meeting Oct. 15 and 16 in Geneva, officials said.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said the diplomats had all agreed to "go forward with an ambitious time frame."
Zarif said he was optimistic about the talks. "We agreed to jump-start the process so we could move forward — toward finalizing it in a year's time," he told reporters later in the evening, after a speech at the Asia Society by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
"We will move forward, but we will test each other as we go along," he added.
A senior U.S. official welcomed the "good atmosphere" in the meeting but said "whether that is meaningful we don't know yet … we don't have a result yet." The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing State Department rules.
The official told reporters that Zarif had laid out several ideas, yet much more was needed to determine whether Tehran would accept the limits the group is demanding on Iran's nuclear program.
"It is a long way from concrete progress," the official said.
One sign of the Iranians' new eagerness was that they did not bicker about the location of the next meeting, the official said.
The diplomats were seated around a U-shaped table. When Kerry appeared, part way through the gathering, a European diplomat gave up her seat so Kerry could sit next to Zarif. The two shook hands as Kerry arrived.
After the meeting, Kerry invited Zarif to step to the side so they could continue their conversation.
The U.S. official said it was not yet clear whether Iran had made a "strategic decision" to accept limits on its nuclear program.
Kerry signaled that he would quickly test whether Rouhani's government was ready for compromise and was not seeking simply to drag out negotiations while Iran's nuclear program advances.
"I will tell you when they're serious," Kerry told reporters earlier in the day. The meeting of the so-called P5-plus-1 diplomatic group convened during a week in which both Presidents Obama and Rouhani told world leaders that they sought an opening to better relations.
Diplomats have hinted that the discussion between the United States and Iran could vault over the plodding path of the P5-plus-1, which has offered Iran limited relief from Western economic penalties in return for a halt to some of its most threatening nuclear activities. The diplomatic group consists of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
For now, officials say, the primary talks will take place at the group meetings. But one-on-one contacts between the U.S. and Iranian officials, which recently included an exchange of letters between Rouhani and Obama, will continue and could become the place where the most important communications take place, some analysts believe.
Although Obama and Rouhani have both signaled their strong desire for progress, their appearances in New York have underscored how little room they have to make compromises, because of allies at home and abroad who are deeply fearful of a deal.
In an interview Wednesday with CNN, Rouhani appeared to depart from Iranian practice by acknowledging the Holocaust. According to a CNN translation, he referred to it as a "crime that the Nazis committed toward the Jews" and called it "reprehensible and condemnable."
But the comments touched off a storm among conservatives in Iran. A semiofficial news agency denied that Rouhani had made such comments and accused CNN of fabricating the quotes.
Obama too has felt the heat from allies who fear he may be taken in by an adversary that has allegedly cheated on United Nations nuclear rules for decades.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered formal support for the talks, but he also called Rouhani a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and warned against giving away too much.
At home, Obama faces warnings from a Congress that is united in anti-Iran zeal as on few issues.
The gap between Obama and Congress on Iran could provoke an all-out battle if the president starts making concessions.