Iran is to hold official direct talks with the US for the first time in decades, in an unprecedented step toward ending its nuclear standoff with the West.
The discussions are to take place in Geneva today and tomorrow, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Department of State said in surprise announcements that come after serious concern that progress on a deal has been stalling.
The bilateral talks will be the first between Iran and the US to fall outside the P5+1 group — Britain, China, France, Russia, the US plus Germany — which has been pursuing a landmark nuclear settlement.
Significantly, the US delegation is to be led by US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, a White House adviser, previously part of a tiny team whose months of secret talks brought Iran back to the P5+1 negotiating table last year.
A senior US administration official said the latest developments signal that “the talks are intensifying” and any progress would feed into the P5+1, which resumes on Monday next week in Vienna.
Iran will be represented at the vice foreign minister level at the US meetings, the most senior direct bilateral contact on the nuclear issue so far.
“These consultations come at an important juncture of the negotiations,” the senior US administration official said just after both sides announced the talks.
The talks “will give us a timely opportunity to exchange views in the context of the next P5+1 round in Vienna,” the US official added, asking not to be named.
A top EU official will also participate in the meeting, US and EU officials said.
Iran and the US, at odds since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the hostage crisis that followed, have in the past year taken tentative steps to rapprochement.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a self-declared moderate elected in June last year, spoke by telephone with US President Barack Obama shortly after taking office. Such a step would have been considered unthinkable under Rouhani’s predecessor, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under whom Tehran’s international relations dramatically worsened.
An agreement on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program is the main prize sought by the US and other world powers.
In return for curbs on its nuclear drive, Iran wants an end to wide-ranging economic sanctions imposed as punishment for pursuing atomic activities and resisting extensive international inspections. The sanctions have devastated Iran’s economy.
A French diplomat said the Geneva meeting would concern specific matters on sanctions between Iran and the US, adding that the other P5+1 members had been consulted. The EU, whose foreign policy chief, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton has been overseeing the P5+1 process, will be represented at the US-Iran bilateral meeting by its political director Helga Schmidt, a statement released in Brussels said.