Iran and 6 key nations to hold nuclear talks at United Nations, EU says

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, left, shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the beginning of their meeting at United Nations headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013.
AP Photo/Richard Drew

UNITED NATIONS Iran's new foreign minister will join talks with six key nations trying to rein in the Islamic Republic's nuclear program later this week at the United Nations, the European Union's foreign policy chief said Monday.

Catherine Ashton, the chief nuclear negotiator, told reporters after meeting Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that she saw "energy and determination" for talks with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to move forward. Foreign ministers of the six nations are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.

The meeting between the Western powers and Iran will be the first since April, when discussions on how to reduce fears that Tehran might use its nuclear technology for weapons stalled at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The election of Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, considered a relative moderate in Iran's hard-line clerical regime, has sparked speculation about possible movement on the nuclear issue. 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.

On Monday, the State Department said the U.S. would work with Iran's new president "should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously."

"We hope that the new Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program and to cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Ashton said she and her team will meet with Zarif again in October to follow up on Thursday's meeting to continue their discussion on reviving long-stalled negotiations.

"We had a good and constructive discussion," she said of her half-hour meeting with Zarif. "We didn't talk about the details of what we would do. The purpose of this meeting was to establish how we would go forward."

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 and drawn criticism from its citizens.

In Washington, the expectations are "sky-high" for this year's U.N. gathering, with both President Barack Obama and Rouhani attending, according to CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett.

"We have to understand the symbolic importance of a meeting in the first place," Garrett said on "CBS This Morning." "There has not been direct contact between the United States government and Iran at a high level since before the Iranian revolution in 1979, so even a handshake in the hallways would symbolically mean a closening of relationships between the United States and Iran.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed only at producing energy and isotopes for medical use. Rohani told NBC last week that Iran has "never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so."

Asked if she thought a breakthrough was imminent on restarting negotiations, Ashton replied, "I was struck, as I said, by the energy and determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me."

"I have worked, I think, very hard to find a way in which we can address this issue of great concern, and I will take every opportunity to try and do that - and I hope this will be one," she said.

Meanwhile, Iran said Monday it had freed 80 prisoners arrested in political crackdowns, offering another potential diplomatic boost for the country's new president and his outreach to the West at this week's U.N. gathering.

It appeared to reinforce the impression that Rouhani has support from the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to explore a broad rapprochement with the West, which has condemned Iran's crackdowns on the opposition.