Iran is prepared to negotiate over aspects of its nuclear enrichment program and to talk about the introduction of surprise inspections of its nuclear facilities, the country's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has said.
"Negotiations are on the table to discuss various aspects of our enrichment program," Zarif said on Sunday, though he added pointedly: "Our right to enrich is not negotiable."
The question of enrichment is one of the knottiest problems facing Western negotiators as the recent sign of détente with Tehran moves from diplomatic gesturing to the hard question of practicalities. The west wants Iran to suspend enrichment at below 20% – the level at which uranium begins to become weapons-usable, while the Iranian government has always insisted that it wants the material only for use in medicine and power generation.
Speaking to George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, Zarif said he was not going to negotiate on the air, but he continued to make assuaging noises that constitute the greatest hope for a thawing in relations with the US in more than 30 years. "We do not need military-grade uranium, that is a certainty, and we will not move in that direction," he said.
Zarif's comments come at the end of a momentous week in the history of US-Iranian ties, topped by the 15-minute phone call between the countries' two presidents on Friday, the first communication at premier level since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. But skeptics still abound, not least in Israel where prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, en route for New York to address the UN general assembly on Tuesday, dismissed the week's events as an Iranian "offensive of smiles".
"A smile attack is much better than a lie attack," Zarif hit back on This Week, going on to accuse Israel of persistently lying about Iran's nuclear intentions.
Iranian experts have pointed to the crushing international sanctions on the country as a prominent factor behind Tehran's apparent change of direction. Zarif lent credence to that theory, highlighting the lifting of sanctions as Iran's main demand in any ensuing negotiations. The sanctions have brought banking inside the country to a virtual standstill, as well as decimating Iran's oil exports and hard currency earnings. Zarif said the US need to "very rapidly" dismantle what he called the "illegal sanctions against Iran that are targeting ordinary Iranians."
Part of the skepticism surrounding Iran's new rhetoric is uncertainty about where the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, stands in terms of nuclear negotiations. Asked whether Khamenei would have the final say in any deal, Zarif replied: "Of course".
Zarif continued the softening of language that is emanating from the Tehran government following the election in June of President Hassan Rouhani who is considered more moderate than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Last week, Rouhani acknowledged the Holocaust – an about-turn on Ahmadinejad's previous denial.
On This Week, Zarif emulated the new tone when he called the Holocaust a "heinous crime, it was a genocide, it must never be allowed to be repeated". Asked to explain why Khamenei's website in English still refers to the "myth of the massacre of Jews known as the Holocaust", Zafir said that was a problem of translation from Persian and referred to the film Lost in Translation.
When asked whether the translation would now be changed, he replied: "I will talk to them."
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