UNITED NATIONS - Iran’s new government took its diplomatic charm offensive to the United Nations on Monday and agreed to new talks on its nuclear program with top diplomats from six world powers, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The meeting bringing the top U.S. diplomat and new Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif around the same conference table will be highly unusual given the United States has not maintained diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980.
The announcement of the talks planned for this week during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, raised hopes that the annual summit of world leaders could bring a thaw in relations between arch-enemies Iran and the United States.
U.S. officials have also said a meeting is possible this week between President Barack Obama and Iran’s new centrist president, Hassan Rouhani, who has shown an apparent desire to take a more conciliatory approach towards the West since taking office last month.
If that meeting were to happen, it would be the first between U.S. and Iranian government heads since before the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, and could help ease tensions in the Middle East that have been worsening given the crisis in Syria.
Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a U.S. foe whose country has been torn by civil war since 2011.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders attending the General Assembly, including Rouhani and Obama, to attend an annual luncheon at the United Nations on Tuesday. That would be one possibility for the two men to meet briefly. Obama skipped last year’s U.N. luncheon, but the White House said he would attend this year.
Obama and Rouhani will both address the assembly on Tuesday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after talks with Zarif that he would join her and his counterparts from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany at a meeting that has been scheduled for Thursday to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, which is at the heart of tensions between Tehran and the West.
The West believes Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons and is determined to stop this, imposing tough economic sanctions. Iran says it is not trying to produce a bomb but has insisted on its right to enrich uranium for the purpose of peaceful energy production.
The EU, led by Ashton, has chaired the talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, as well as Germany - which have made little headway in spite of years of negotiations.
Ashton said the meeting in New York would be “short discussions,” and added that she would represent the P5+1 in a meeting with Zarif in Geneva in October.
The last time a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister spoke face-to-face appears to have been more than six years ago.
In May 2007, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear she was open to talking to her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, at an international conference in Egypt, but the encounter amounted to pleasantries over ice cream.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was ready to work with Rouhani if his government engaged seriously in efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.
A senior State Department official said Iran’s meetings this week with European officials and ministers would show whether Iran was coming with concrete new proposals “and whether this charm offensive actually has substance.”