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September 25, 2013

Top Diplomats to Meet on Iran’s Nuclear Program

by Meredith Buel

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are scheduled to meet Thursday to start high-level negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. The talks at the United Nations are fueling cautious hope for progress after a decade of failed diplomacy.

On Twitter this week, Iran’s new foreign minister, Zarif, said the opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue is historic. Zarif received his higher education in America and speaks fluent English. He will lead Iran’s nuclear talks with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany.

He's been continuing the charm offensive launched by Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. “Iran seeks constructive engagement with other countries based on mutual respect and common interest and within the same framework does not seek to increase tensions with the United States,” said Rouhani.

U.S. President Barack Obama says the diplomatic path must be tested. “Given President Rouhani’s stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government.”

Iran's economy, after multiple rounds of sanctions, is in serious trouble.

And that, said analyst Alex Vatanka, is spurring Iranian efforts to improve relations. “What I heard from President Obama, we have been hearing from President Rouhani and the Iranian supreme leader is that 'look, we are bleeding and you are tired of all the conflicts in the Middle East, we both have a reason, with whatever incentives we come to the table, we want a solution, let’s see if we can talk.'”  

Although hopes for a handshake between the top leaders did not materialize, American and Iranian diplomacy appears to have reached a new level, at least for now.

Mark Fitzpatrick is a top Iran watcher in London. “For the time being, the talk of war is off the table. I mean, it’s in the background. And, if diplomacy is not able to settle this problem by next summer, I think, unfortunately, the prospects for war will be back on the table.”

Despite the diplomacy, skeptics say actions will speak louder than words.

Analyst Matthew Levitt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said, “Iran is reportedly increasing its support for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. It is doubling down in support of the Assad regime in Syria. And its proxy Hezbollah continues to try and carry out attacks on Israeli tourists around the world. So there is a disconnect between the words and the actions right now and we need to see them merge.”

Iran says it will never develop nuclear weapons - a pledge Western nations do not trust.

The stakes are high according to Iran analyst Patrick Clawson. “This is a moment of great hope, but also, frankly, a moment of considerable danger because if we don’t reach an agreement with Rouhani we will never reach an agreement with Iran. And it is still unclear if the terms that he will accept overlap with the terms that we will insist upon.”

A senior U.S. official says the steps taken by Iran in the weeks ahead will determine how successful diplomacy will be.