By Kambiz Foroohar and Sangwon Yoon
The top U.S. and Iranian diplomats talked for more than an hour today about two security issues with global ramifications: Iran’s nuclear program and the territorial gains of Islamic State extremists.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York as heads of state were arriving for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting.
While the U.S. and Shiite-led Iran are both seeking to combat Islamic State, the Sunni extremists who have seized swaths of northern Iraq and eastern Syria, the American side has said it won’t let that shared interest affect its stance in talks on curbing Iran’s nuclear efforts. The two subjects were taken up separately today, according to a statement from a U.S. official who described the meeting on condition of anonymity.
“The Iranians have been purposefully trying to conflate the two things to draw a linkage,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. The U.S. wants to discuss the two issues separately “not because they’re not concerned about it, but because they just don’t want the Iranians horse trading on issues,” he said.
Discussions on the country’s nuclear program between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Russia, France, the U.K., China and Germany — resumed last week in New York as a November 24 deadline for a comprehensive agreement approaches. The deadline was extended after the parties failed to reach an accord in July.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi described the atmosphere of the nuclear talks as excellent on Sept. 19, after he addressed a UN Security Council meeting on the Islamic State threat.
On the U.S. side, officials sought to send similarly hopeful signals.
There’s optimism that the nuclear talks, which had stalled for two months over Iran’s opposition to sharply reducing the size and output of its enrichment program, are now making progress, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks.
At the same time, some other U.S. officials involved in the negotiations have said privately that they are skeptical an acceptable agreement can be reached before the November deadline, which they called final.
Two officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said they remain suspicious that despite recent public statements, Iran’s senior leaders are stalling for time and will continue to insist on retaining enough uranium enrichment and other capabilities to maintain the critical elements of a covert nuclear-weapons development and delivery program.
Iran maintains it has a right to develop its nuclear program, which it says is purely for civilian use.
While International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have verified Iran is living up to an interim agreement in place during the negotiations, the country hasn’t allowed access to people and places that may have been connected with past nuclear work.
Failure of the talks would free Iran from the constraints on nuclear enrichment it agreed on during the negotiations while restoring some U.S. and European sanctions that have been eased in return. U.S. lawmakers also would push for new, stricter sanctions against Iran. Israel would continue to raise the prospect of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear assets, an option that U.S. President Barack Obama hasn’t ruled out.
The international effort to curb Islamic State has only added a new layer of complexity to U.S.-Iran relations as the nuclear talks near their culmination.
The U.S. has set limits on its willingness to work in tandem with Iran in what Obama has called an international coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said on Sept. 16 that “we’re open to talking to the Iranians about what’s happening in Iraq, but not coordinating with them, not sharing intelligence with them.”
While the U.S. excluded Iran from a multinational Sept. 15 conference in Paris on countering the threat posed by Islamic State, Kerry told a UN Security Council meeting on Sept. 19 that “there is a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran.”
Araghchi told reporters after addressing the Security Council meeting that Iran hasn’t negotiated with the U.S. over Islamic State. He also called for consistency in dealing with the group.
While both Iran and the U.S. back the Iraqi government, they are on opposite sides in Syria, with Iran supporting President Bashar al-Assad as the U.S. seeks his ouster.
In a sign of the extent to which Islamic State’s successes have scrambled old alliances, Zarif also met for an hour today with Saudi’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, according to Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are usually on opposite sides in regional power struggles.
“From my view and that of the Saudi foreign minister, this will mark a new chapter in the two countries’ relations,” Zarif said, according to the news agency.