UNITED NATIONS — The top diplomats of the United States and Iran held their first substantive meeting since the 1979 Iranian 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 Thursday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and diplomats from five other world powers on the sidelines of the United Nations' annual gathering to probe whether a new Iranian government and Washington “can continue to chart a way forward,” a senior administration official said before the meeting began.
Kerry and Zarif, seated next to each other at the gathering, grinned broadly for photographers during a brief photo op late Thursday afternoon.
Kerry signaled that he would quickly test whether the government of President Hassan Rouhani 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, which is expected to be followed by another next month in Geneva, convened during a week in which both President Obama and Rouhani told world leaders that they sought an opening to better relations.
Though Obama and Rouhani both signaled a strong desire for progress, their appearances in New York underscored how little running room they have to make compromises, because of allies at home and abroad who are deeply fearful of a deal.
Rouhani, in an interview with CNN, appeared Wednesday to depart from Iranian practice by acknowledging the Holocaust, referring to it as a “crime that the Nazis committed toward the Jews, and calling 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 is suspected of cheating on U.N. nuclear rules for decades.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered formal support for the talks, he has also called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and warned against giving away too much.