By Mick Krever, CNN
The lead U.S. negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program called the first two days of a new round of direct talks “detailed” and “substantive.”
“Foreign Minister Zarif and his delegation came prepared for detailed, substantive discussion with a candor that I certainly have not heard in the two years I’ve been meeting with Iranians,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday, adding that her Western colleagues who had more experience with Iran agreed.
“We’re trying to pick up the pace of this, to move quickly, because we don’t want Iran’s nuclear program to keep moving forward,” Sherman said.
These initial talks covered the counties’ objectives – Sherman said that negotiators knew going into it that they were unlikely to immediately reach concrete agreements.
“This is highly technical work, when you’re talking about a nuclear program,” she said.
These talks were for the first time conducted in English, which Sherman said “increased the pace the ability to have direct and candid discussions.”
She would not go into the specifics of what was discussed, saying that the seriousness of diplomatic talks are often gauged by the tightness of the lid put on press leaks.
“They have given us their thoughts, their ideas; we’ve given them our thoughts, our ideas,” Sherman told Amanpour. “As much as I love the press, we’re being very careful to note the seriousness of these discussions.”
President Rouhani’s trip to New York in September for the U.N. General Assembly was something of publicity tour, in which he gave major interviews and tried to put a moderate face on his new government.
He also spoke on the phone with President Obama – a first for heads of states of the two countries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 – and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a bilateral meeting with his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Javad Zarif.
“We had passed the bilateral Rubicon,” Sherman said. “This was really in a different tone and manner because of what has preceded it.”
She also noted that Zarif believed the talks were off to a good start.
One of Iran’s principal goals in negotiations with the U.S. and others is a removal of the economic sanctions that have inflicting real damage.
The United States even brought a sanctions expert with it to this initial two-day meeting.
“Iran wants to get sanctions relief,” Sherman told Amanpour. “But they also have to understand what the range of our sanctions are, what they require, how they work, what it takes to implement sanctions relief, what sanctions we believe need to stay in place – and we believe our core sanctions must.”
Sherman was upbeat about the tone of discussions with Iran, but emphasized that on substantive issues there were still large gaps to bridge.
“Nothing has yet been agreed. No steps have been taken to relieve sanctions in any way, shape, or form, because we have a lot of work left to do to begin to take those steps,” she said. “But these two days were an important predicate to that kind of agreement, both in a confidence-building way and in a final agreement.”
And those involved in the discussions, she told Amanpour understood how important their discussions were.
“Everyone at our roundtable understood that the stakes are high, and we have to do everything we can to reach a diplomatic solution,” she said. “There are other options” – referring to the military strike President Obama has insisted is on the table – “but a diplomatic solution is the best option, and we all have to do everything we can as quickly as we can to see if in fact we can achieve just that.”