Meeting of Kerry, Iran's FM and world powers.
Meeting of Kerry, Iran's FM and world powers. Photo by AFP
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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves the 5+1 meeting held at the UN headquarters. September 26, 2013. Photo by AP

U.S. and Iranian officials emerged upbeat on Thursday from a meeting on Iran's  nuclear program, but both sides also sounded a cautionary note, with the United States saying there was more work to do and Iran insisting on quick sanctions relief.

"Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone, which was welcome, doesn't answer those questions yet and there is a lot of work to be done," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters after holding bilateral talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The meeting, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, marked the highest-level direct contact between the U.S. and Iran in six years.

Speaking after Kerry, Zarif said the meetings had been "very constructive" and "very businesslike." "We hope to be able to make progress to solve this issue in a timely fashion [and] to make sure [there is] no concern that Iran's program is anything but peaceful," he said.

Though Rohani didn't mention Israel by name, he did single Israel out as the "main instigator" against Iran. He said it was most pronounced every time there was an increase in international pressure over "the settlements and the occupation and the depriving of Palestinian rights."

"I am satisfied with this first step," Zarif said. "Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so we can move forward."

He said the end result would have to include "a total lifting" of the international sanctions that have devastated Iran's economy.

Later on, speaking at the Asia Society, Zarif said the parties agreed to "move toward finalizing [an end result] hopefully within a year's time."

"I thought I was too ambitious, bordering naivete," he added. "But I saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to do it faster."

European diplomats also expressed optimism after the meeting's conclusion, with the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton calling it "substantial." She said the parties had agreed to "go forward with an ambitious timeframe" and that senior negotiators would meet in Geneva on October 15-16.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there had been a "big improvement in the tone and spirit" from Zarif, compared with representatives of the previous Iranian government.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the meeting had taken place in a "completely different tone, atmosphere and spirit" that what the group was used to and that a "window of opportunity has opened" for a peaceful resolution of the situation. He warned, though, that Iran's words would have to be matched by actions.

"Words are not enough," he said. "Actions and tangible results are what counts. The devil is in the detail, so it is now important that we have substantial and serious negotiations very soon."

Also present at the meeting were representatives from Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

Just hours before the start of the talks, Kerry had secured agreement from his Chinese counterpart calling for Iran to respond positively to existing nuclear proposals by the six world powers, U.S. officials said.

Thursday's meeting was the first between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister since a brief encounter in May 2007. The two countries have been estranged since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

In an interview with the CBS show 60 Minutes, Kerry said one concrete step Iran could take to show it was serious about not seeking nuclear arms would be to open up its Fordow uranium enrichment facility to U.N. inspectors.

"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 (nuclear) program," Kerry said.

Hopes for a thaw

The six powers said in February that they want Iran to stop enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, ship out some stockpiles and shutter a facility where such enrichment work is done. In return, they offered relief on international sanctions on Iran's petrochemicals and trade in gold and other precious metals.

Rohani's gestures since taking office in August have raised hopes for a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran after years of estrangement and for a resolution of the dispute on Iran's nuclear program.

A centrist cleric, Rohani has stepped up efforts to moderate Iran's image abroad during a visit to New York. He said that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons - despite Western suspicions that it is seeking to do so - and called for a nuclear deal in three to six months. Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes only.

But signaling some of the obstacles that could hamper any new diplomacy, Iran on Thursday sharply criticized the UN nuclear watchdog over "baseless allegations" about its atomic activity.

It was an apparent reference to the International Atomic Energy Agency's concerns, spelled out in a series of quarterly reports, about what it calls the possible military dimensions to Iranian nuclear activities.

In a 20-page "explanatory note" posted on the agency's website, Iran's mission to the IAEA detailed in uncompromising language its many objections to the latest report on Tehran's nuclear program, issued last month.

No handshake

Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced Rohani's gestures as the basis for a possible nuclear deal and challenged him to demonstrate his sincerity.

The failure to orchestrate a handshake between the two leaders, apparently due to Rohani's concerns about a backlash from hardliners at home, underscored how hard it will be to make diplomatic progress.

But even without any real concessions so far, Rohani has offered a softer, more reasonable tone than his stridently anti-U.S. predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Addressing a UN meeting on nuclear disarmament on Thursday, Rohani said: "No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons."

But Rohani also seized the opportunity to take a swipe at Iran's arch-foe Israel, which has accused him of trying to fool the world and buy time to continue its nuclear advances.

Rohani said Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, was the reason for the failure of international efforts to establish the region as a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Asked what he needed to hear from the Iranians to show they were serious about addressing those concerns, Kerry, speaking to reporters as he began a meeting with China's foreign minister, replied: "I'll let you know after they've been serious."

Afterwards, a U.S. official said of the U.S.-China meeting: "They talked through the elements of the diplomatic track, as well as the sanctions track." Kerry also met with diplomats from Libya and Pakistan on Thursday.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is hosting the P5+1 meeting, met Rohani earlier on Thursday, Ashton's spokesman said.

"What is certain is that there is a new will emerging both in Iran and among the P5+1 states to successfully conclude the new round of talks with a new approach," Abbas Araqchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, told Press TV, Iran's state-owned English-language broadcaster.

Iranians are hoping to see some tangible steps taken by the Western powers - namely relief from the painful U.S., European Union and UN sanctions for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Iranian oil exports have fallen by around 60 percent in the past two years as the EU stopped purchases completely and most Asian buyers drastically cut imports because of sanctions. Iran is now earning around $100 million from oil sales a day as opposed to $250 million two years ago.