Conciliatory statements by U.S. and Iranian leaders at the United Nations this week, a historic ministerial meeting and an agreement between key U.N. countries and Iran to resume detailed talks on its nuclear program next month raise hopes of progress after years of stalemate. Expert Iran-watchers in London believe the situation is fundamentally different now than it was when the last round of diplomacy failed earlier this year.
It was the first formal meeting involving a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister since the Islamic Revolution 34 years ago. And the group session was followed by a one-on-one.
“All of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to the possibilities of the future," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters.
“We stressed underneath to continue these discussions, to give it the political impetus that it requires,” added Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister.
January: IAEA confirms Iran is refining uranium to 20 percent fissile purity.
February: U.N. inspectors end talks in Tehran without inspecting disputed military site at Parchin.
April: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vows Iran will not surrender its nuclear rights.
May: U.N. inspectors report they found find traces significantly upgraded uranium at an Iranian site.
July: EU begins total ban on Iranian oil imports, US expands sanctions.
September: IAEA demands access to Parchin, Iran calls EU sanctions "irresponsible."
December: IAEA says it makes progress in talks with Iran. US imposes more sanctions.
January: Iran says it will speed up nuclear fuel work.
February: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejects direct nuclear talks with the U.S. Iran and world powers meet, agree to more talks.
May: IAEA says Iran has expanded nuclear activity.
September: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says Iran will not seek weapons of mass destruction. Iran and world powers agree to resume nuclear talks.
The goal is a process that leads to international confidence that Iran is not moving to build a nuclear weapon, and the removal of crippling economic sanctions.
Middle East Policy Professor Rosemary Hollis at City University London believes the outlines of a settlement are well-known, and might now be achievable.
“We’ve got a potential breakthrough on the P5+1 talks with Iran. Rouhani is a completely different character and, albeit only for a window of opportunity, not indefinitely - he has the backing of the Supreme Leader to see if he can make his kind of diplomacy work," Hollis said.
Still, as he moved through the corridors of the United Nations, the new Iranian president chose to meet with various foreign leaders but not the U.S. president.
Experts say, even with the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a mandate from the voters, the Iranian president cannot move as quickly with the United States as he can with European countries.
That leads Mark Fitzpatrick of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies to conclude that any progress in negotiations will be incremental.
“I don’t expect that there will be a comprehensive agreement," he said. "Whatever agreements are reached are probably going to be confidence-building steps. But having it at this level sends a sign of seriousness on both sides.”
Experts say that seriousness comes from several factors, including the U.N. economic sanctions against Iran, the continuing threat of an attack on Iran if it gets too close to being able to build a nuclear weapon, and the election of President Rouhani, a far more pragmatic figure than his predecessor.
A former British ambassador to Iran, Richard Dalton, said there is another very simple reason:
“Common both to Iran and the United States is the growing realization that the tactics they have used to obtain their national interests have largely failed,” Dalton said.
Dalton added that the deadlock of recent years has not brought the West any closer to the guarantees it wants on Iran’s nuclear program, and has not brought Iran any closer to the security, prosperity and respect that it wants. He and the other analysts hope that is enough motivation for serious movement toward a deal.