What happened at historic meeting between U.S. and Iran? Depends on whom you ask

BY Margaret Warner  September 26, 2013 at 9:35 PM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, right, attended a meeting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany on Thursday.

Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images

NEW YORK — Iranian president Hasan Rouhani was nearing the first hour of a remarkably relaxed give-and-take with a select audience here this evening when the real man of the hour — his foreign minister Javad Zarif — blew in, and rushed to his reserved front row seat next to Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass.

The crowd stirred. Rouhani had emphatically repeated that Iran had no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapons capability and “will leave no stone unturned” to convince the world of that … as long as the world recognizes Iran’s “right” to develop its own nuclear technology, including enrichment, for peaceful purposes. But the president had been frustratingly vague when pressed for specifics. “The depth and detail of your questions will have to be addressed at the P5+1″ he said at one point, referring to the meeting taking place across town among the foreign ministers of six world powers, including the U.S., and Iran’s foreign minister Zarif (the highest level meetings of officials from the two countries in more than 30 years).

So the crowd was expectant when, at Rouhani’s urging, Zarif bounded up to the podium to report on his hour-long meeting with the Security Council powers, and his private tete-a-tete with Secretary of State John Kerry afterwards. He was clearly excited. “We agreed to jump start the process,” he said, to agree at the outset on the parameters of what the end-state would look like — when it came to Iran’s nuclear program — as well as on a series of interim matching steps it would take to get it all done in a year’s time. “I’m very optimistic,” Zarif said.

But 30 minutes later, in a background briefing, a senior State Department official involved in the same meeting insisted “there was not an agreement” on a process, much less on any specifics. “This was an introductory meeting,” the official said. Zarif’s presentation of how Iran wants to see the timeline unfold “has value,” and was far more forthcoming than anything heard from the Iranians in years of discussions, the official said, but “Nothing has been agreed upon. … It is a long way from agreement.”

So is the U.S. willing to agree on an “end state’” at the outset, rather than plod enough a series of “confidence building measures” to an uncertain goal? The official’s answer was to repeat President Obama’s statement in his U.N. speech that “Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear program” once all the world’s concerns are addressed. And does that include the right to enrich? There was no answer.

The difference in the read-outs was instructive. There’s no question that the new attitude of this new Iranian president has created a different atmosphere for negotiations, remarked upon by both sides. But there is a lot of hard bargaining to do.

The unknown is what it will mean to have Kerry and Zarif personally engaged. After all, no one knows what went on in their private meeting, when they slipped aside for 30 minutes of conversation — without the usual note-takers.