WASHINGTON (AP) — Iran would open its nuclear facilities to international inspectors as part of broad negotiations with the United States that could eventually restore diplomatic relations between the adversaries and those talks have the backing of the nation’s supreme leader, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Sunday.
Zarif also said the United States and its allies must end their crippling economic sanctions as part of any deal. The Western-educated Zarif again repeated Tehran’s position that it has no desire for nuclear weapons but has the right to continue a peaceful nuclear program.
“Negotiations are on the table to discuss various aspects of Iran’s enrichment program. Our right to enrich is nonnegotiable,” Zarif said during an English-language interview that comes amid a significant shift in U.S.-Iranian relations.
At the same time, Zarif’s deputy tried to calm hard-liners’ fears at home. “We never trust America 100 percent,” Abbas Araghchi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars News Agency, which has close ties to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard.
And Obama’s national security adviser expressed similar skepticism given decades of an anti-American record.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions have isolated its people from the rest of the world and led to harmful economic penalties. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared the use of nuclear weapons against Islamic law yet has maintained his nation has the right to develop its uranium program.
But Khamenei, who is the nation’s ultimate decision-maker, also has given his approval for elected leaders in his country to engage the West over the nuclear program, Zarif said.
That engagement resulted in a phone conversation Friday between President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct contact between the two countries’ leaders in three decades.
“While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution,” Obama told reporters Friday at the White House.
That optimism was certain to be a dominant topic when Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Sunday was on his way to the United States and has long insisted Iran be blocked from obtaining the capability of obtaining a nuclear weapon.
As he boarded his plane in Israel, Netanyahu said he was heading to the United Nations to “tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles.”
Zarif scoffed at those concerns.
“Well, a smile attack is much better than a lie attack,” Zarif said.
He also said Israeli leaders have been warning that Tehran is months away from having a nuclear weapon since 1991, and those fears have never been realized.
“We’re not six months, six years, 60 years away from nuclear weapons. We don’t want nuclear weapons. We believe nuclear weapons are detrimental to our security,” said Zarif, a former nuclear negotiator.
The potential diplomatic thaw after a generationlong freeze is far from certain, and Zarif indicated this would not be simple. Iran’s top diplomat also said his country is willing to forgive the United States’ history with Iran but will not forget decades of distrust between the two nations.
Nor was the United States rushing to forget Iran’s past duplicity, hostility and support for organizations its State Department has labeled terrorist groups.
“Obviously, we and others in the international community have every reason to be skeptical of that and we need to test it, and any agreement must be fully verifiable and enforceable,” said Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser.
Rice said sanctions would remain in place until the United States and its allies were satisfied Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons.
In a separate interview, Secretary of State John Kerry said an agreement could come in a matter of months if Iran came to the table in good faith.
“The United States is not going to lift the sanctions until it is clear that a very verifiable, accountable, transparent process is in place, whereby we know exactly what Iran is going be doing with its program,” he said last week before Obama and Rouhani spoke.
The skepticism went both ways.
“Definitely, a history of high tensions between Tehran and Washington will not go back to normal relations due to a phone call, meeting or negotiation,” said Araghchi.
The U.S. and Iran broke ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when mobs stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. A total of 52 hostages were held for 444 days.
Araghchi also reiterated Khamenei’s statements that he is not optimistic about the potential outcome.
The focus now turns to negotiations among foreign ministers and other officials from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. The group wants Iran to present a more detailed proposal for a path forward before or at the next round of negotiations, scheduled in Geneva on Oct. 15-16.
If Iran complies, the oil-rich nation could see the easing of economic sanctions imposed after years of Iran’s stonewalling inspections and secrecy about its nuclear activities. The West has long insisted on inspections, and Zarif now seems open to them.
“There may have been technical problems. They may have been problems of transparency, and we are prepared to address those problems,” he said.
Zarif spoke Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Rice spoke to CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” Kerry was interviewed on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”