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Six powers invite Iran for nuclear talks
LONDON (Reuters) - The United States and five other powers invited Iran on Wednesday to a meeting on its nuclear programme after Washington dropped its opposition to direct talks with Tehran in a major change of policy.
The United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain said in a statement they would ask European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana to invite Tehran to the talks to find "a diplomatic solution to this critical issue."
Breaking with past U.S. policy of shunning direct talks with Iran, President Barack Obama's administration said the United States would join in nuclear discussions with Iran from now on.
"We strongly urge Iran to take advantage of this opportunity to engage seriously with all of us in a spirit of mutual respect," the six powers said after a meeting of senior diplomats in London.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would be a "full participant" in major power talks with Iran.
"Obviously we believe that pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense. There is nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon," Clinton told reporters in Washington.
An official in Solana's office said contacts would now be taken up with the Iranian government to arrange a meeting.
A Western diplomat said talks with Iran were expected to take place within the next few weeks.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment.
The big powers' statement is markedly more conciliatory than in the past when Western officials often threatened to ratchet up sanctions against Iran or did not rule out military action.
Last month, Obama offered a "new beginning" of diplomatic engagement with Iran.
NEW POLICY DIRECTION
Until now, U.S. policy has been not to talk to Iran about its nuclear programme until Tehran gives up uranium enrichment work the West believes is aimed at building an atomic bomb.
Iran, the world's fourth largest oil exporter, says its nuclear programme is only aimed at generating electricity.
The statement said other members of the group, known as the E3+3, welcomed the new direction of U.S. policy towards Iran and Washington's decision to "participate fully in the E3+3 process and join in any future meetings" with representatives of Iran.
Senior U.S. diplomat Williams Burns took part in the last nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva last July but then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said his attendance was a "one-shot deal."
In a possible setback to warmer U.S.-Iranian relations, Iranian media reported on Wednesday that authorities had charged an Iranian-American journalist with spying for the United States.
Iran celebrates its National Nuclear Day on Thursday when analysts expect President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to announce Iran has mastered the final stage of nuclear fuel production.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions on Tehran for defying its demand to suspend uranium enrichment, which could also be used to produce nuclear weapons.
The six powers said they were determined to resolve concerns about Iran's nuclear programme through "direct diplomacy," in line with a package of financial and diplomatic incentives they offered last year to try to persuade Tehran to give up uranium enrichment.
They reaffirmed their "dual track" strategy which combines tightening sanctions with the prize of economic and political cooperation if Tehran complies.
The Western diplomat said a "freeze-for-freeze" proposal -- whereby Iran must freeze expansion of its nuclear programme in return for the U.N. Security Council halting further sanctions measures -- remained on the table.
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Deborah Charles in Washington, Antonia van de Velde in Brussels and Fredrik Dahl in Tehran)
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alison Williams)
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