MUNICH -- Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met for an hour Sunday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, another sign of serious efforts to solve the crisis around Iran's nuclear program.
The two met on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, and Mr. Zarif later said on a public panel that Iran "will go to those negotiations with the political will and good faith to reach an agreement."
According to U.S. officials, Mr. Kerry "reiterated the importance of both sides negotiating in good faith" when talks aimed at a comprehensive deal begin Feb. 18 in Vienna. Mr. Kerry also urged Iran to keep to "its commitments" under an initial temporary deal agreed upon in November.
Mr. Kerry told Mr. Zarif that the United States would continue to enforce existing sanctions, the officials said, but also emphasized that the U.S. would keep its commitment not to create new sanctions while the temporary, six-month deal was in force.
Mr. Zarif said publicly that Iran wanted to negotiate seriously for as long as necessary, which could take longer than six months, and he offered to begin a dialogue on human rights issues with the European Union. He said Iran and the world were at a crossroads, despite decades of mistrust on both sides. "The opportunity is there, and we need to seize it," he said.
He said Iran was fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization that monitors compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed. The agency's director, Yukiya Amano, said Iran was complying so far but that important questions about its nuclear program, which Iran insists has no military component, remained to be clarified.
Mr. Zarif acknowledged the point, saying, "There are important questions, and we are prepared to address them."
Under the six-month deal with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, Iran agreed to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, close to military grade, and to convert or dilute its current stock of such uranium, while continuing to enrich at lower levels. In return, the EU and the U.S. agreed to lift certain sanctions temporarily and return $4.2 billion of Iran's assets, previously frozen, in eight installments over six months.
A comprehensive deal is expected to be difficult to achieve, but Iran and the U.S. seem committed to trying -- Iran to end its isolation and the sanctions imposed upon it, and the U.S. to solve at least one big Middle East problem and avoid the possibility of military action to prevent the development of an Iranian bomb. A failure of the talks would bring the military option quickly back to the fore.
Also on Sunday, Mr. Kerry found himself at the center of a dispute a day after warning that the risk of foreign boycotts of Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians would intensify should his current Middle East peace effort fail.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and some of his senior ministers on Sunday strongly criticized those who are threatening a boycott of Israel.
"Attempts to impose a boycott on the state of Israel are immoral and unjust," Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting. "Moreover, they will not achieve their goal."
In a swift response, the State Department said Mr. Kerry had always opposed calls for boycotts and expected "all parties to accurately portray his record and statements."