Leaders try to put a little heat in frigid US-Iranian relations

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. One day, Iran and the US can't even talk to each other; the next it seems they're prepared to put aside their differences. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but today, Secretary of State John Kerry is sitting down with Iran's foreign minister in New York. It'll take awhile before things get resolved, but here's a possible timeframe -- three to six months. That's how long Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, says it could take to strike a deal on Iran's nuclear program. Gary Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University and was the point person at the White House during the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran and the Iranian Revolution. So, Gary Sick, first we had Syria and a seemingly spontaneous deal on chemical weapons. Now it's Iran and the possibility of a deal being struck in three to six months with the international community. I mean given how the whole US-Iran relationship has been defined for years by mistrust, this speedy reengagement makes you dizzy. What does this moment mean for you?

Gary Sick: Well, it's a very important moment for me because actually in the last 34-35 years, I have you know, worked steadily on this issue, the US-Iran relations, and I must say it's been filled with nothing but disappointment. About 34 years ago I sat in the meeting with Secretary Cy Vance, if you remember him as Secretary of State, who met with Ibrahim Yasdi, who was the foreign minister of Iran at the time, currently in jail, I believe. He was arriving right after the Iranian Revolution and we met in a room in the UN, and that was the last time that a US secretary of state met with an Iranian foreign minister.

Werman: So I mean the players are kind of cautious about saying too much, but there's also this great sense of promise right now. How is it being played, especially at the foreign minister level by John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif?

Sick: I think both sides are aware that if you raise expectations too high, the only thing that you will get is disappointment. So I think there's a clear recognition by both sides that they need to be cautious. They need to make sure they're prepared. I was at a meeting last night where was a group of academics and think tank people talking to President Rouhani.

Werman: And you're in New York, correct.

Sick: I'm in New York, yes. He hosted a dinner and then a seminar at his hotel, and we had a chance to really talk seriously. These were all specialists who were there, and former government officials, and they posed some very complicated questions and difficult questions to him, and he gave very wholesome replies. He answered each one of the questions. He didn't dodge or evade. He was quite competent and very sobered. He's a man of considerable gravitas, but he took each question seriously.

Werman: I'm just fascinated by that local encounter in that hotel room. What was the mood like in that room with all these players? I mean did it feel real to you? Did it feel different?

Sick: This is very different. I attended a number of meeting of the same sort with Ahmadinejad, the previous president, and I could tell you that those meetings were sparring matches. Ahmadinejad never answered questions. He debated you. So you would ask him a question and he would tell you why you were wrong, what was the matter with you, why it was really somebody else's fault. He had his talking points all prepared and he relished that kind of activity. But I would say the mood in the room was certainly a positive one.

Werman: I mean it's the speed that really stands out here. President Rouhani says a deal can be struck between Iran and the international community in three to six months. Does that seem too fast tracked for you in a situation where there are a lot of moving parts?

Sick: It is quick, but in reality, the outlines of an agreement are pretty clear. We've known for a long time what an agreement would look like in general terms between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue. And what has been lacking is the will to proceed with it, which has been a fault of both sides. I must say that the history of US-Iran relations that I have lived actually is simply that landscape is littered with corpses of missed opportunities. My hope is this will not be one of those.

Werman: Well, Gary Sick, thank you very much for your time.

Sick: My pleasure talking to you.

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