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Iran at UN: Missteps and advances on the road to a nuclear deal

September 27, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talks about his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during an address and discussion hosted by the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talks about his meeting… (John Minchillo / Associated…)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's debut on the world stage this week got mixed reviews on both sides of the Atlantic but succeeded in bringing U.S. and Iranian officials together on the issue that most bitterly divides them: Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Thursday's meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was more symbolic than substantive. The diplomats did little more than exchange pleasantries and set Oct. 15-16 to meet again in Geneva.

But as the highest-level meeting between U.S. and Iranian officials in years, and perhaps the most significant since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the very fact of their being polite and in the same room was seen as historic.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chaired the meeting of Kerry, Zarif and top diplomats from five major powers, deemed the brief talks "significant" and said the parties had agreed to “go forward with an ambitious time frame.”

Zarif told reporters he hoped the forum will “be able to make progress to solve this issue in a timely fashion.”

Rouhani, in a speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly, reiterated Tehran's readiness to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection and to take other steps to convince the United States and its allies that Iran's reactors are solely for peaceful, civilian uses. Iran's economy is reeling from harsh sanctions, and Rouhani won election in June on promises to do what it takes to get the punishment eased.

But the newly inaugurated president's speech was rambling and filled with the same boilerplate denunciations of U.S. foreign policy heard from his confrontational predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That disappointed proponents of better relations between the United States and Iran after more than three decades of acrimony.

Rouhani was also seen as having bungled what was an apparent attempt to repudiate Ahmadinejad's incendiary claim that the Holocaust was only a "myth." In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, he condemned "the crime the Nazis committed towards the Jews." But he drew widespread criticism for his use of vague and obfuscating language, a claim that historical research is needed to determine the scope of the Nazis' crimes and his suggestion that Israel uses the Holocaust to justify repressing Palestinians.

There was also a sense of letdown in both countries that Rouhani didn't meet with President Obama or submit to a staged handshake while both leaders were at the U.N. gathering. That may have been a wise omission, some analysts argue, as a premature photo op depicting the smiling leaders of longtime enemy countries could be used by either president's political opponents to derail any prospects for reconciliation.

Still, the brief session with Kerry and Zarif marked a significant step forward, according to diplomats in attendance.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the meeting as a “big improvement in the tone and spirit” from previous encounters with Iranian officials.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he believed a "window of opportunity has opened” for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear debate.

Zarif, a U.S.-educated diplomat from a previous Iranian government that tried but failed to effect reforms, was named by Rouhani to conduct negotiations on the nuclear issue with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- plus Germany.

Kerry, too, was personally assigned by President Obama to test Iran's sincerity in wanting to resolve the nuclear standoff. His first encounter with Zarif has raised hope for achieving Rouhani's stated desire for an agreement as swiftly as within three months.

"True, it is symbolic, but it's pretty significant just having a ministerial sit-down with Iranians on the issue we are most concerned about," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Rouhani and his delegation accomplished "about 75% of the goal" that brought them to New York, Maloney said, which was to shake up the prevailing assumptions about Iran, its relations with the outside world and its intentions in developing nuclear technologies.

Maloney recounts a century of Iranian political developments in an essay published this month, "Iran Surprises Itself and the World," describing the confluence of interests and pressures that has finally forced Tehran to consider concessions on the nuclear issue.

She described Rouhani's speech Tuesday as "a stumble" and his language on the Holocaust unfortunate. Iran's Fars News Agency, aligned with the conservative Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, showed its displeasure with even a hedged acknowledgment of the Holocaust in a story headlined "CNN Fabricates Iranian President's Remarks about Holocaust."

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