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Iran, U.S. Preparing For Highest-Level Contact In Years

There has been speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama (left) could meet with Iran's President Hassan Rohani (right) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The United States and Iran are preparing for what could be their highest-level contact in six years.

Officials say Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is expected to join U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for a meeting on September 26 with their counterparts from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia at the United Nations in New York.

The meeting between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, is expected to discuss Iran's nuclear program and the crippling UN sanctions that have been imposed on the Islamic republic because of that program.

The White House also said it would not rule out a meeting between new Iranian President Hassan Rohani and President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly.

Both Obama and Rohani are due to make an address on the opening day of the 68th General Assembly session on September 24. Obama is scheduled to speak in the morning and Rohani in the afternoon.

Any direct talks between top-level U.S. and Iranian leaders would mark the first such contacts since 2007.

That year, the then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Iranian counterpart, ex-Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1980, after Washington severed ties in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

During that revolution, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized and the U.S.-backed shah was toppled from power.

Rohani is considered a relative moderate in Iran's system and won a landslide victory in June. He has indicated that he may be ready to take a more conciliatory approach to the West after years of tensions over Iran's nuclear program and other issues under the more hard-line ex-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

In addition to the nuclear issue, the United States and Iran are deeply split over the Syrian conflict.

Tehran is a strong backer of President Bashar al-Assad, while Washington has demanded that the Syrian President leave power and has threatened military action over the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons.

On September 23, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif held talks in New York with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Hague told reporters afterward that improved ties could result if Tehran takes "concrete steps" to address Western allegations that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at the development of an atomic weapon.

"The United Kingdom welcomes President Rohani and Foreign Minister Zarif's recent statements about Iran's wish to improve its relations with the outside world. And we discussed those statements and how to give effect to them. So the time is now right for those statements to be matched by concrete steps by Iran to address the international community's concerns about Iran's intentions. And if such steps are taken, then I believe a more constructive relationship can be created."

Iran has repeatedly denied any weapons motive in its nuclear activities, saying the program is only for energy production and medical research.

The UN Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran, notably over the Islamic republic’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to make fuel for both energy and nuclear weapons.

The United States and its allies have also imposed their own sanctions. These have led to a reduction of Iranian oil exports, which are vital for Iran’s economy, and restricted Iran’s ability to conduct international banking transactions.

With reporting by AP, dpa, AFP, and Reuters
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