By Louis Charbonneau and Yeganeh Torbati
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran's new government, stepping up a campaign to project a more moderate image abroad, said on Wednesday it wants to jump-start talks with world powers to resolve a decade-long dispute over its nuclear program and hoped for a deal in three to six months.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is set to hold talks on the nuclear issue on Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as diplomats from Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, in a rare encounter between top American and Iranian officials.
"The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that's short," new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as telling the Washington Post, through a translator, during a visit to New York, where he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
"The shorter it is, the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it's three months that would be Iran's choice, if it's six months that's still good. It's a question of months not years," said Rouhani when asked for a time frame for resolving Iran's nuclear dispute with the West.
Earlier on Wednesday, Iran's foreign minister expressed hope for a quick resolution of the nuclear stand-off.
Asked what he expected from Thursday's meeting with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany, Zarif told reporters: "a jump-start to the negotiations ... with a view to reaching an agreement within the shortest span."
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.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced overtures from Rouhani, a new centrist president, as the basis for a possible nuclear deal and challenged him to take concrete steps toward resolving the issue.
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.
BOTH SIDES SEEK CONCESSIONS
Iranians are also hoping to see some concrete steps taken by the Western powers - namely relief from painful U.S., European Union and U.N. sanctions for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
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.
At the United Nations 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.
He spoke of Iran's willingness to engage immediately in "time-bound" talks on the nuclear issue, but 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 described the Holocaust as a "reprehensible crime" against Jews, although the scale of it was a matter for historians.
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."
In the Washington Post interview, Rouhani also appeared to backtrack on the Iranian government's position of blaming rebels opposed to the Syrian government, which is a close ally of Tehran, for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus last month.
"Let me just say we know that chemical weapons have been used. We don't know by whom or which group. That is unclear," he said. "We do know that it has been used and we are happy that Syria has agreed to join the Chemical Weapons (Convention), and that is one result of agreeing to negotiate."
Syria has agreed to give up its chemical weapons under a plan agreed by the United States and Russia after Western powers blamed President Bashar al-Assad's government for last month's chemical attack.
HIGHLY UNUSUAL MEETING WITH AMERICANS
Kerry will join Fabius, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the German and Chinese foreign ministers for Thursday's meeting. Also present will be European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A meeting between Kerry and his Iranian counterpart at the same conference table will be highly unusual given that the United States has not maintained diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980.
However, in spite of the optimism inspired by conciliatory words from Rouhani, a failed effort to arrange a simple handshake between Obama and the new Iranian president at the United Nations on Tuesday underscored an entrenched distrust that will be hard to overcome.
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.
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."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country borders Iran, said it would do all it could to encourage progress in engagement with Iran.
"There is a positive atmosphere and we want that this will continue, not only in the nuclear file, but in all other issues," he said. "We expect that Iran will contribute constructively to regional issues as well, like Syria. That is important for us."
Davutoglu said Turkey was still willing to revive a failed 2010 nuclear fuel-swap agreement which would have involved it taking low-enriched uranium from Iran in return for higher-grade material for use in a medical research reactor.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Adler, John Irish and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Will Dunham and Paul Simao)