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US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during the Center for American Progress(PAC) 10th Anniversary Conference in Washington, DC, October 24, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran nuclear deal closer than ever, says John Kerry

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A comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran is “closer than ever” but the work is far from over with key issues unresolved, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has told a global gathering on nuclear disarmament, where he and Iran’s foreign minister met on the sidelines.

Several of the world’s nuclear powers will discuss progress on a landmark treaty on disarmament over the next few months, with Israel attending for the first time in two decades as an observer.

Diplomats said the continuing Iran discussions were separate from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) review conference, whose job is to set a path to the elimination of the estimated 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world.

Immediate concerns at the conference include the lack of progress in disarmament by the US and Russia, who between them hold more than 90% of those weapons. Civil society groups say nuclear powers are spending billions of dollars to modernise their arsenals. The US says it is “maintaining and servicing”.

Few breakthroughs are expected at the conference as diplomats warn of cold war-style tensions over Ukraine and other issues. “I know as well as anyone that we have a long way to go” on the path to a nuclear-free world, Kerry said, acknowledging that “we know that we can cut back even further”.

Kerry was meeting Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for the first time since world powers and Iran sealed a framework agreement on 2 April that would limit Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. They face a deadline of 30 June to sign a comprehensive accord.

Zarif will address the conference on Tuesday. Speaking on behalf of developing countries on Monday, he repeated the call for the Middle East to be free of nuclear weapons, a popular goal of Arab states which has gained little traction in the past five years.

Kerry called the proposed zone an “ambitious goal and fraught with challenges” but worth pursuing. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said: “Israel has shown readiness for constructive steps to be taken.”

Zarif repeated a call by the Non-Aligned Movement for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. Israel has never publicly declared it has any nuclear weapons.

Israel surprised attendees with its appearance as an observer, but since it is not a party to the treaty, it will not address the conference. When asked whether he would be meeting Israeli delegates, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, said: “I don’t know yet.”

In his speech, Amano warned that his agency “is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities”.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians marked their first conference as a state party to the treaty.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said on Monday that without any real progress towards eliminating nuclear weapons the action plan the conference agreed at in its last meeting five years ago “could risk fading in relevance”.

“I am deeply concerned that over the last five years this process seems to have stalled,” Ban said. He called on world leaders to “abandon short-sighted political posturing”.

Both Ban and Amano, as well as Japan and South Korea, expressed concern about North Korea’s nuclear programme and the lack of talks to address it.

Kerry called North Korea “the most glaring example” of a country ignoring global obligations toward disarmament and said the US continued to work with partners to set the stage for talks – but only if Pyongyang showed it was serious.