UNITED NATIONS — Iran's foreign minister and the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon exchanged views Thursday on the country's controversial nuclear program and its potential role in ending the Syrian conflict, two issues expected to dominate next week's annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former U.N. ambassador, returned to U.N. headquarters for the first time since he was named foreign minister by the country's new president, Hasan Rouhani, who will be making his first appearance at the General Assembly on Tuesday.
"I commend the efforts of the new government in Iran in promoting dialogue with the international community," Ban said. "I'm pleased the government ... is now taking some concrete steps to fulfill the promises made by president Rouhani during his recent election campaign."
After years of frozen diplomatic relations, U.S. President Barack Obama and Rouhani, considered a relative moderate in Iran's hard-line clerical regime, exchanged letters after his election. This has fueled widespread speculation that U.S. and Iranian officials may meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
Avaaz, an activist organization that uses the internet to mobilize support for various political issues, said it launched a campaign this week which has already been signed by more than 1.1 million people calling on the U.S. and Iranian leaders to agree to talks at the General Assembly. It is also running polls in Iran to gauge opinion on a U.S.-Iran meeting.
"This could be President Obama's Nixon-to-China moment that would save Syrian lives – the question is whether the two reform-minded leaders who will soon be mere steps away from each other in New York will seize it," Avaaz Campaign Director Ian Bassin said.
Zarif hosted a lunch for many U.N. ambassador and Wednesday and invited the five permanent members of the Security Council – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. Several ambassadors who attended said they did not see U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power and a well-informed U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the lunch was private, said the U.S. did not attend.
The secretary-general told reporters he had "a very good meeting" with Zarif and praised the government's release Wednesday of 12 political prisoners – a move Ban said he pushed for when he visited Iran in August 2012.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky added that they discussed "Iran's growing cooperation with the international community on a host of issues, including the nuclear file, as well the role Iran could play in promoting a political solution to the conflict in Syria."
Zarif was equally upbeat about the meeting.
"We had a good meeting with the secretary-general, discussed various issues of interest to all countries including Iran and the United Nations," the Iranian foreign minister told several reporters. "We attach great importance to the role of the United Nations and we had a good discussion on the nuclear issue and on other issues."
The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran because of concerns it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The U.S. and its Western allies have imposed even more punishing sanctions which have severely affected Iran's economy.
The West believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed only at producing energy and isotopes for medical use. Rohani told NBC this week that Iran has "never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so."
Rouhani said last month that the foreign ministry – not the Supreme National Security Council – will lead nuclear talks with world powers, a shift away from security officials being in control.
Zarif said at the time that the next round of talks with the five permanent Security Council members and Germany will take place after the General Assembly's ministerial meeting.
He said he will meet European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the convener of the talks, on the sidelines of next week's meetings. Foreign ministers from the six nations are also scheduled to meet next Thursday on the assembly sidelines to discuss next steps.