The U.N. Security Council's five permanent members reached an agreement Thursday to push through a resolution calling for the swift elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, a key development in fast-paced day of diplomacy that also featured the highest-level U.S.-Iranian meeting in years.
While questions remained Thursday night about specific language the Security Council will adopt toward Syria, the Obama administration said there had been a "breakthrough" after "hard-fought diplomacy" geared toward bolstering the deal struck between the U.S. and Russia to persuade embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpile.
"The Russians have agreed to support a strong, binding and enforceable resolution that unites the pressure and focus of the international community on the Syrian regime to ensure the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons," the administration said in a statement.
At the same time, Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart Thursday and, according to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the two men and several other great-power diplomats agreed to try for a swift end to the lengthy standoff over Tehran's nuclear program. Diplomats all around praised the new tone in the meeting, compared with the often belligerent rhetoric of past Iranian officials.
Force against Syria?
What was unclear on the Syria resolution was whether it will specifically threaten military action if Damascus does not comply — something the Obama administration sought heading into U.N. negotiations this week but which Russia, Syria's patron for decades stretching back into the Soviet era, has consistently rejected.
The statement circulated by the White House on Thursday night said only that the resolution will make "absolutely clear that the failure of the Assad regime to comply will have consequences."
Asserting that forces loyal to Mr. Assad carried out last month's horrific chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, the Obama administration spent recent days pushing for the "binding" resolution that would leave the door open for a military strike on Syria.
But Russia, which has declared that there is no proof tying Mr. Assad and his military to the Aug. 21 attack and has blamed the Islamist-backed rebels for the attack, has resisted the inclusion of such a threat in any security council resolution, most recently in words Wednesday from Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.
Winning over Moscow
Since then, some Western diplomatic sources have suggested that the final Security Council resolution likely would include a careful language workaround designed to appease both Russia and the U.S.
Under the terms of the resolution being negotiated, according to media reports, if Syria does not comply with international operatives in destroying its chemical weapons, the Security Council would meet again to vote on whether to adopt a second resolution that could include the threat of a military strike.
However, such language would leave the door open for a Russian veto in that event.
For more than two years, the Security Council has been paralyzed over Syria — with Russia and China consistently backing the Assad government, while the U.S., Britain and France have, to varying degrees, supported opposition groups fighting for Mr. Assad's ouster.
Russia and China have vetoed three proposed Western-backed resolutions that the U.S. had pushed in hopes of pressuring Mr. Assad to end the violence in his nation.
New tone from Iran
The Syria developments emerged alongside another apparent breakthrough Thursday, in which Iran's new government engaged in talks in New York with the U.S. and five other world powers on the issue of the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
Mr. Zarif sat directly next to Mr. Kerry during the meeting and held a rare one-on-one conversation — an unusually high-level contact between the long-estranged nations, which traditionally have had lower-level diplomatic representatives participate in nuclear talks.
Mr. Zarif said the talks, which also included representatives from Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — the so-called P1+5 group — reached an agreement to try to resolve all issues in the decadelong standoff surrounding Iran's nuclear program within a year.
"We agreed to jump-start the process so that we could move forward with a view to agreeing first on the parameters of the end game and move toward finalizing it hopefully within a year's time," the foreign minister said later in the evening in a speech at the Asia Society in New York.
"I thought I was too ambitious, bordering naivete. But I saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to do it faster," he said.
The seven nations agreed to meet again Oct. 15-16 in Geneva.
After the meeting, Mr. Kerry said he was encouraged by a "very different tone" put forth by Iranian officials, which was "welcome." But, he cautioned, "one meeting and a change in tone" do not solve all the issues that need hammering out.
"All of us were pleased that the foreign minister came today and that he did put some possibilities on the table," he told reporters.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke similarly, saying there had been a "big improvement in the tone and spirit" from Iran.
History of estrangement
It was an uncommonly hgh-level encounter between top officials of the U.S. and Iran, which have been estranged since the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah and subsequently invaded the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and held hostage 52 staff members and diplomats for more than a year.
The meeting was the first between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister since a brief encounter in May 2007.
Heading into the meeting, the Obama administration downplayed the likelihood of a breakthrough but expressed optimism about talks with the government of Iran's recently elected President Hassan Rouhani.
Some Western foreign policy analysts have suggested that Mr. Rouhani is significantly more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and represents a significant opportunity for dialogue between Tehran and Washington.
However, Mr. Rouhani rejected a White House invitation for a brief meeting with Mr. Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The Obama administration later claimed that Iranian officials thought it was "too complicated" to be seen meeting with the U.S. and that the conversation, no matter how short, would have posed political problems for Mr. Rouhani in Iran.
Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have insisted that a final resolution of the nuclear issue will have to include the lifting of all U.S. and European sanctions against Iran.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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