UNITED NATIONS — Iran's new president said Friday that President Barack Obama struck a new tone in his U.N. speech this week that left him optimistic about easing tensions between the two countries.
Hassan Rouhani also said the recent elections that propelled him to the Iranian presidency created a "new environment" that could pave the way for better relations with the West.
Rouhani said at a news conference in New York that he did not meet with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly this week because there was not enough time to plan such a high-stakes meeting.
But he said Iran emerged hopeful from a lower-level meeting with the U.S. and its international partners aimed at restarting talks to settle their nuclear standoff.
The upbeat, if guarded, tone by both sides after Thursday's meeting of Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany was seen as a significant step forward after months of stalled talks. It was capped by an unexpected one-on-one meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who shook hands and at one point sat side-by-side in the group talks.
It was the highest-level direct contact between the United States and Iran in six years.
In another sign of building momentum, both sides agreed to fast-track negotiations and hold a substantive round of talks on Oct. 15-16 in Geneva. Iran, hoping to get relief from punishing international sanctions as fast as possible, said it hoped a resolution could be reached within a year.
"We agreed to jump-start the process so that we could move forward with a view to agreeing first on the parameters of the end game ... and move toward finalizing it hopefully within a year's time," Zarif said after the talks. "I thought I was too ambitious, bordering on naiveté. But I saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to do it faster."
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said the parties had agreed to "go forward with an ambitious timeframe."
Kerry said he was struck by the "very different tone" from Iran. But along with his European colleagues, he stressed that a single meeting was not enough to assuage international concerns that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program.
"Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone, that was welcome, does not answer those questions," Kerry told reporters. "All of us were pleased that the foreign minister came today and that he did put some possibilities on the table."
He said they agreed to try to find concrete ways to answer the questions that people have about Iran's nuclear activities.
As the group meeting was ending, Kerry leaned over and asked Zarif: "Shall we talk for a few minutes."
A senior U.S. official said that in the one-on-one meeting, aides from both sides chatted in a marked departure from past encounters, when the Iranians were tight-lipped. It was one of the signs of a new attitude, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The official also said Zarif presented a number of ideas — many that had come up before — but they were not particularly detailed. The Americans asked Zarif to come back at the Geneva round or even earlier with some more detailed proposals.
Zarif said the end result would have to include "a total lifting" of the international sanctions that have ravaged Iran's economy.
"We hope ... to make sure (there is) no concern that Iran's program is anything but peaceful," he said. "Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so we can move forward."
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