ISFAHAN, Iran (Reuters) - Iran said it would review an offer of talks on its nuclear programme from the United States and five other world powers, even as it prepared to declare new progress in its disputed atom activity on Thursday.
The United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain said on Wednesday they would ask European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana to invite Tehran to a meeting to find “a diplomatic solution to this critical issue.”
It marked a policy reversal in Washington under new President Barack Obama, after his predecessor George W. Bush spearheaded a drive to isolate Iran over work the West suspects is aimed at making bombs. Tehran denies the charge.
China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and a close energy and trade partner with Iran, said it welcomed signs of renewed engagement and urged Tehran and other powers to pursue contacts aimed at defusing the long-running row.
In comments suggesting China sees renewed hopes of progress, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing: “We are glad to see an improvement in relations between the United States and Iran.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Tehran was ready for talks with the United States, its old foe, but demanded a fundamental change in U.S. policy.
Despite reaching out to Tehran, analysts and diplomats say the Obama administration would be realistic about its chances of a breakthrough and was aware that Iran may use talks to buy time to complete its nuclear programme.
In 2006, Iran said it was considering an economics incentives offer by world powers but rejected it in the end, a manoeuvre diplomats at the time saw as time wasting.
The Islamic Republic, which marks its National Nuclear Day with an event in the central city of Isfahan due to start around 5 p.m. (1:30 p.m. British time), says it only aims to produce electricity and has repeatedly refused to halt sensitive nuclear activity.
Underlining Tehran’s determination to press ahead with its nuclear programme, Ahmadinejad was expected to announce that Iran has mastered the final stage of atom fuel production.
“There will be new developments announced in regards to Iran’s advances in nuclear science and technology,” Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by state broadcaster IRIB in Isfahan.
Iran’s state Press TV said he would inaugurate a nuclear fuel manufacturing plant and may also make an announcement on a new, more advanced generation of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, which can have both civilian and military purposes.
The United States cut ties with Iran shortly after its 1979 Islamic revolution, but Obama has offered a “new beginning” of diplomatic engagement after three decades of mutual mistrust.
“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 in London.
A senior aide of Ahmadinejad, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, said about the offer: “We will review it and then decide about it.” Press TV cited him as describing the proposal as constructive.
Professor Mohammad Marandi at Tehran University said Iran probably would accept the invitation “if there are no particular strings attached,” but that Washington must recognise that Iran sees its nuclear programme as peaceful and legitimate.
While seeking to engage Iran, the new U.S. administration has also warned of tougher sanctions if it continues to defy U.N. demands to halt sensitive nuclear work.
Iran has long been working on its uranium enrichment capability to fuel its developing nuclear power programme, which it says it needs so that it can export more gas and oil.
Foreign nuclear analysts believe Tehran has yet to prove it has mastered industrial-scale enrichment of uranium, the key to making fuel in large, usable quantities and the most technically difficult aspect of producing nuclear power.
Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Dominic Evans