Iran has sat down for historic talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, opening up a “window of opportunity” for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear standoff.
The foreign minister for Iran, Javad Zarif, also took part in a private 20-minute meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, following a group discussion with counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US to discuss reviving stalled talks on Iran's uranium enrichment efforts – which the West says are aimed at developing an atomic bomb.
The meeting, which saw Mr Zarif seated next to John Kerry, marked the highest-level talks between the two sides in over three decades.
After those talks, Mr Kerry leaned over and asked Mr Zarif: “Shall we talk for a few minutes?”. They stayed behind in the meeting room after the exit of representatives from the other countries, and senior US officials said that what followed was a marked departure from past encounters.
Following the meeting, Mr Kerry welcomed what he said was a change in Iran's “tone”. “We had a very constructive meeting,” he told reporters, but added that “there is a lot of work to be done”.
Mr Zarif said: “I am satisfied with this first step. Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so we can move forward.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there had been a “big improvement in the tone and spirit” from Iran compared with the previous government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the meeting had taken place in a “completely different tone and atmosphere” than what the group was used to and that a “window of opportunity has opened” for a peaceful resolution of the situation.
Hours before the highly-anticipated meeting, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, declared that no country had the right to a nuclear arsenal and demanded that Israel join the 1979 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons,” Mr Rouhani told a disarmament meeting on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Since arriving in New York, President Rouhani has been engaged in a vigorous campaign to present a newly moderate face of Iran and insist he is serious about rejecting nuclear weapons. The message has been delivered in his address to the Assembly on Monday, in private bilateral meetings - including with the French President, François Hollande - as well as in an interview with CNN and a private breakfast with top US editors and news anchors on Wednesday.
But any suggestion that Israel joining the NPT might be a condition of co-operation by Iran would complicate the process. Israel has warned the US and others not to take Mr Rouhani at face value, adding that he is subordinate to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini.
Noting Israel's failure to sign the treaty, Mr Rouhani said: “Almost four decades of... efforts to establish a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East have regrettably failed.” He said all nations should be subject to unfettered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, something the West has long been demanding of Tehran.