BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Iran is ready to hold its first talks with world powers in more than a year about its disputed nuclear program any time after November 10, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Friday.
The meeting with a group of six world powers would be the first in the long-running dispute since October 2009 and also the first since the United Nations, the United States and European Union imposed tougher sanctions on Iran this year.
Western officials say the punitive measures are increasingly damaging the economy of the world No. 5 oil producer and that this may persuade it to agree to curb sensitive atomic activity.
Iran has dismissed the impact of sanctions and shown no sign of backing down over a uranium enrichment drive. It says it has a sovereign right to pursue peaceful nuclear power, but the West suspects it aims to build unlawful atomic bombs.
The six global powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — want Iran to suspend enrichment work which can have both civilian and military uses, in exchange for trade and diplomatic benefits on offer since 2006.
Ashton said she had received a letter from Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in which he agreed to meet “in a place and on a date convenient to both sides” after November 10.
Earlier this month, Ashton invited Jalili to hold three days of talks in Vienna from November 15 to 17.
“Dr Jalili ... is agreeable to begin discussions after November 10 and wants to agree the time and place. I think this is a very significant move,” she told reporters at an EU summit.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed Iran’s signal, but said the content of the talks was what mattered.
“The key thing is that these are talks of substance: this is what all participants will be measured by,” he said in Berlin.
Washington said it remained to be seen if Tehran was ready for serious negotiation.
“We would hope that Iran would come to the table prepared for a meaningful dialogue,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
In Tehran, Iran’s state Press TV confirmed the letter and referred to previously stated pre-conditions for talks such as “clarification on Israel’s ambiguous nuclear program,” Israel is believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East.
An EU diplomat said it now looked like the meeting would take place in Geneva rather than Vienna. The aim was for three days of discussions with “everything on the table,” including broad discussion of Iran’s nuclear activities.
“We see this all as a very positive sign,” he said.
“This dialogue has to be serious ... on serious issues that really worry the international community which has asked serious questions and awaits serious answers,” said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero on Iran’s readiness for talks.
Iran has consistently ruled out shelving enrichment activity and remains publicly defiant in the eight-year-old dispute, which has the potential to set off a regional arms race and kindle a wider Middle East conflict.
“The Iranians have been happy to meet in the past and then backtrack,” one Western diplomat said in Vienna, home of the U.N. atomic agency. “I don’t ever see them stopping enrichment.”
Omid Nouripour, an Iranian-born member of parliament for the opposition Greens in Germany, said Iran’s latest move should be treated with caution because its rulers were divided over whether to compromise and had shown no consistency on talks.
For now, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was interested only in keeping power, Nouripour told Reuters.
“I don’t think Ahmadinejad has a fixed position on anything,” he said. “If he felt that his position would be strengthened by a making a compromise on the nuclear issue, there’s no doubt that he’d be more likely to solve the problem.”
Research coordinator Ian Anthony of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said the first priority should be to “try to reverse the downward spiral without thinking about any breakthroughs” in the dispute.
“The objective in a first meeting would be to initiate some kind of more structured dialogue that can be carried forward, to avoid the first meeting also being the last,” he said.
Tehran has seemed keener on resuming talks on a stalled plan for it to send low-enriched uranium abroad and receive higher-grade fuel for a medical research reactor in return.
Western diplomats say that, even if the fuel exchange idea were revived, it would not resolve farther-reaching concerns about Iran’s nuclear plans which it must also agree to discuss.
The U.S. State Department said this week Washington and EU nations were preparing a new offer to Iran on a swap that would include tougher conditions than those Tehran rejected last year.
Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels, Dave Graham in Berlin, John Irish in Paris and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing and additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Peter Graff