WASHINGTON -- The White House on Monday confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry plans to meet face to face with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif later this week, the latest sign of a possible diplomatic thaw between the United States and Iran after 34 years of hostility.
In the highest-level face-to-face between U.S. and Iranian officials since 1979, Kerry and Zarif will meet in New York to talk about Iran's nuclear program, along with representatives from five other countries. For the last several years, under a framework known as P5 Plus One -- for the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- the U.S., the U.K., China, Russia, France and Germany have exchanged proposals on this topic with Iran.
Shortly after the White House confirmed the Kerry-Zarif meeting, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued a statement reaffirming the United States' readiness "to work with Iran," provided the administration of newly sworn-in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will "choose to engage seriously."
Rouhani and President Barack Obama are also in New York City this week for the annual high-level meetings of the U.N. General Assembly. But there are currently no plans for the two leaders to meet face to face, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters Monday aboard Air Force One.
Nonetheless, speculation abounds that Rouhani and Obama might cross paths in the hallways of the U.N. between meetings and speeches, and might even share what would be a historic handshake. On Tuesday, both leaders are expected to attend a luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- an event that has become a focal point for the diplomatic rumor mill.
Rouhani on Monday tweeted a photo of himself boarding the plane bound for New York. He was ready, he wrote, for "constructive engagement" with the world.
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 23, 2013
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, suggested that the breathless anticipation around a possible Obama-Rouhani encounter may have encouraged the State Department to draw attention Monday to Kerry and Zarif's meeting, in order to tamp down expectations over the two presidents.
"It makes sense for the State Department to play up Kerry's role in this week's meetings," Parsi told The Huffington Post on Monday. "If things go wrong tomorrow at the luncheon and there is no handshake, it will still be very important that Kerry and Zarif are having this meeting, at this high level, and people need to be reminded of that," he added. "Still, right now everyone's looking for the Obama-Rouhani moment, and that's understandable."
Since taking office in August, Rouhani has embarked on a charm offensive in the West. In recent interviews with both American and international media, Rouhani, who speaks fluent English, has stressed that Iran is prepared to accept international oversight of its controversial nuclear program.
A former nuclear negotiator himself, viewed by many as a relative moderate, Rouhani told NBC's Ann Curry recently that Iran wants only one thing from P5 Plus One. "That is political resolve. If there is political resolve, the issue can be settled very easily,” he said. “We only want our activities, our nuclear activities, to be peaceful, and we have accepted international supervision over our activities."
Some U.S. officials are skeptical that Iran will come to the table with proposals that would be acceptable to the United States, even as a starting point for further talks.
"Here's the hitch: Iranians are going to want lifting of sanctions right away, which America won't do," said a senior Obama administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations. "And the sanction lift isn't going to happen unless Iran agrees to terms that they never would, binding resolutions and so forth."
Part of the risk here for Iran, the official said, is that any legitimate shift in its relationship with the United States would deprive some elements of the Iranian regime of their raison d'etre for the past three decades. "The regime's entire ethos is anti-West. So if they give that up, then what do they stand for?" the official said.