UPDATE 2-Iran wants 'jump-start' in nuclear talks with big powers
* Kerry, other diplomats to meet with Iran's Zarif Wednesday
* Meeting in New York marks rare U.S.-Iran encounter
* Western powers, Iran want concrete steps from each other
* Zarif says Iran has "political will" for serious talks
By Louis Charbonneau and Yeganeh Torbati
UNITED NATIONS, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Iran's foreign minister expressed hope on Wednesday that a meeting with top diplomats from the United States and five other powers this week will jump-start negotiations to resolve the decade-long dispute over the Iranian nuclear program.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is set to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as diplomats from Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany on Thursday in New York in a rare encounter between American and Iranian officials.
Asked what he expected from the meeting with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany, Zarif said: "a jump-start to the negotiations ... with a view to reaching an agreement within the shortest span."
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced overtures from Iran's new centrist president, Hassan Rouhani, as the basis for a possible nuclear deal and challenged him to take concrete steps toward resolving the issue.
Speaking after a meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, he added: "The Islamic Republic has the political readiness and political will for serious negotiations and we are hopeful that the opposite side has this will as well."
"We (Zarif and Fabius)... had a good discussion about the start of nuclear talks and the talks that will take place tomorrow at the foreign ministerial level between Iran and the P5+1," Zarif said, referring to the so-called P5+1 group comprising the five Security Council powers plus Germany.
Iran has been negotiating with the P5+1 since 2006 about its nuclear program, which Western powers and their allies suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear-weapons capability. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian energy purposes only.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Rouhani said that nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction "have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions."
Iran has been hit with painful American, European Union and U.N. sanctions for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Kerry will join Fabius, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the German and Chinese foreign ministers for the meeting. Also present will be European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The meeting bringing the top U.S. diplomat and new Iranian foreign minister around the same conference table will be highly unusual given that the United States has not maintained diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was interested in more than words from the Iranians.
"We hope that the new Iranian government will show and not just say they are prepared to engage substantively, and tomorrow is an early test of that proposition," she said.
A failed effort to arrange a simple handshake between Obama and Rouhani on Tuesday underscored the entrenched distrust that will be hard to overcome.
Rouhani used his debut at the world body on Tuesday to pledge Iran's willingness to engage immediately in "time-bound" talks on the nuclear issue. But he offered no new concessions and repeated many of Iran's grievances against the United States and Washington's key Middle East ally, Israel.
He steered clear, however, of the Holocaust-denial rhetoric that was characteristic of his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and later told CNN that the Holocaust had been a "reprehensible crime" against Jews, although the scale of it was a matter for historians to consider.
Rouhani repeated that sentiment in a meeting with a small group of editors and journalists on Wednesday.
"The Nazis committed a crime not just against Jews but against Christians and Muslims, against all humanity," he said. "The massacre cannot be denied against the Jewish people. We condemn it."
Obama and other Western leaders said in their U.N. addresses that the conciliatory language from Iran would need to be matched with solid steps.
Skepticism runs deep, particularly among the Israelis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will not be fooled by Hassan Rouhani's international outreach, and the world must not be either.
The Israelis are not alone.
"We are seeing an enormous amount in terms of signals and gestures but absolutely nothing in substance," a French diplomatic source said about Zarif's meeting with Fabius. "We hope that tomorrow will be the occasion to change that."
Iranians are also hoping to see some concrete steps taken by the Western powers - namely sanctions relief.
Seyed Yahya Safavi, a senior military adviser to Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, said in an interview with Fars news agency on Wednesday that Tehran wants to see action from the Americans. "If they lift sanctions bit by bit and establish trust, (then) we can be hopeful," Safavi added.
Morteza Sarmadi, Iran's deputy foreign minister, quoted in state news agency IRNA, echoed Safavi's comments, saying: "The thing that will get us results are the actions that must follow these statements," referring to Obama's U.N. speech on Tuesday.
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