GENEVA: Iran's foreign minister said Wednesday serious dialogue with the West would be easier if it respected Muslim sensitivities, ruffled by the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoons, as he began nuclear talks with the chief U.S. diplomat.
Speaking to reporters before seeing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Mohammad Jawad Zarif said the meeting would help gauge whether both sides were ready to advance toward a deal to curb Iran's nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief.
"I think it's important. I think it will show the readiness of the two parties to move forward and to speed up the process," Zarif told reporters as he waited for Kerry, who arrived four minutes late for their meeting at a Geneva hotel.
Iran and six world powers including Washington have renewed their quest for an elusive nuclear deal after negotiators failed for the second time in November to meet a self-imposed deadline.
The sought-after agreement, whose new deadline is June 30, would gradually end sanctions imposed on Iran in exchange for verifiable curbs on its uranium enrichment program to ensure it cannot be put to developing nuclear bombs.
The Islamic Republic says it wants only civilian energy from enrichment, denying Western suspicions it has military goals.
Asked if he hoped they could reach agreement by July 1, Zarif said: "That's why we are here. We'll see.
Zarif also sought to explain why Iranians are dismayed by the cover of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo's Jan. 14 edition, which features a cartoon of a tearful Prophet Mohammad with a sign "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) below the headline: "Tout est pardonné" (All is forgiven).
Seventeen people died in violence in Paris last week that began with a Jan. 7 attack by two Islamist gunmen on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed including the journal's top cartoonists, and ended with a siege at a kosher supermarket on Jan. 9 in which four people died. A policewoman was also shot dead elsewhere on the street. All three gunmen involved were killed in raids by French special forces.
At least 3.7 million people marched through France Sunday in memory of the victims and in support of free expression. However, depictions of Mohammad are regarded as blasphemous by many Muslims.
"Unless we learn to respect one another, it will be very difficult in a world of different views and different cultures and civilisations, we won't be able to engage in a serious dialogue if we start disrespecting each other's values," Zarif said. "We believe that sanctities need to be respected.
"I think we would have a much safer, much more prudent world if we were to engage in serious dialogue, serious debate about our differences, and then we will find out that what binds us together is far greater than what divides us," he said.
Kerry, accompanied by a team of U.S. negotiators including Acting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Bill Burns, the former number two U.S. diplomat, did not speak to reporters though he apologized to Zarif for arriving late.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the shooting attack on Charlie Hebdo, saying it was ordered by the Islamist militant group's leadership for insulting the Prophet Mohammad, according to a video posted on YouTube.