UNITED NATIONS – Iran's new foreign minister will join talks with six key nations trying to rein in the Islamic Republic's nuclear program later this week at the United Nations, the European Union's foreign policy chief said Monday.
Thursday's meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly would be the first in six years between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister. It comes amid signs of a possible thaw in US-Iranian diplomatic relations, which were cut after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Catherine Ashton, the chief nuclear negotiator, told reporters after meeting Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that she saw "energy and determination" for talks with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to move forward.
The meeting Thursday between the Western powers and Iran will be the first since April, when discussions on how to reduce fears that Tehran might use its nuclear technology for weapons stalled at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
U.S. officials said Secretary of State John Kerry will attend. It would mark the first meeting between the top U.S. and Iranian diplomats since U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in May 2007.
The election of Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, considered a relative moderate in the country's hard-line clerical regime, has sparked speculation about possible movement on the nuclear issue. Rouhani said last month that the foreign ministry -- not the Supreme National Security Council -- will lead nuclear talks with world powers, a shift away from security officials being in control.
Rouhani is scheduled to address the U.N. on Tuesday.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States hopes the new Iranian government "will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program and to cooperate fully" with the International Atomic Energy Agency in its investigation.
"We remain ready to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously," she said.
Ashton said she and her team will meet with Zarif again in October to follow up on Thursday's meeting to continue their discussion on reviving long-stalled negotiations.
"We had a good and constructive discussion," she said of her half-hour meeting with Zarif. "We didn't talk about the details of what we would do. The purpose of this meeting was to establish how we would go forward."
The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran because of concerns it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The U.S. and its Western allies have imposed even more punishing sanctions which have severely affected Iran's economy and drawn criticism from its citizens.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed only at producing energy and isotopes for medical use. Rouhani told NBC last week that Iran has "never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so."
Rouhani has repeatedly appealed to the U.S. and allies to roll back sanctions to move ahead negotiations. Before leaving for New York, Rouhani urged Western leaders to heed his appeals for greater dialogue and take steps to ease economic sanctions on Iran as a path to "reach joint interests."
Asked if she thought a breakthrough was imminent on restarting negotiations, Ashton replied, "I was struck, as I said, by the energy and determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me."
"I have worked, I think, very hard to find a way in which we can address this issue of great concern, and I will take every opportunity to try and do that -- and I hope this will be one," she said.