Six world powers have accepted an Iranian offer for talks on its disputed nuclear programme, the European Union's top diplomat said on Tuesday, after a year's standstill that has increased fears of a slide into a new Middle East war.
The announcement by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton came shortly after Russia called for a resumption of face-to-face dialogue as soon as possible, saying an Iranian letter last month showed it was now ready for serious negotiations.
With Israel speaking increasingly loudly of resorting to military action, the talks could provide some respite in a crisis which has driven up oil prices and threatened to suck the United States into its third major war in a decade.
Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote to Ashton in February saying Tehran wanted to reopen negotiations and offering to bring unspecified new initiatives to the table.
Today I have replied to Dr. Jalili's letter of February 14, Ashton, speaking on behalf of the six powers after weeks of consultations with them, said in a statement. I have offered to
resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue.
Ashton, who represents the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in dealings with Iran, said the date and venue for the talks would now have to be agreed.
A senior EU official said these talks were not expected before the Iranian new year in two weeks, though there would be a series of preparatory meetings possibly in the coming days.
Our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme, while respecting Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, Ashton said in her reply to Jalili.
Western states are likely to tread cautiously, mindful of past accusations that Iran's willingness to talk has been a stalling tactic to blunt pressure and not a route to agreement.
The Islamic Republic's latest approach to the six powers comes at a time when it is suffering unprecedented economic pain from expanding oil and financial sanctions.
The resumption of talks nonetheless could slow a drift towards military strikes to knock out Iran's uranium enrichment programme, which the West fears is geared to producing atomic bomb fuel and Tehran says is for electricity only.
Israel, which says its existence could be threatened if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, is losing confidence in Western efforts to rein in the Islamic Republic with sanctions and diplomatic pressure.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday that the Jewish state has made no decision on attacking Iranian nuclear sites, sources close to talks in Washington said. He, however, gave no sign of backing away from the option of military strikes.
But the new prospect of diplomacy contributed to a fall in oil prices on Tuesday, with Brent crude down $1.70 to $122.10 by 2:58 p.m. British time.
The risk premium on Iran was pretty high, so one should expect to see that fading because world powers are willing to talk to Iran. It's much harder to launch a military strike on a country if you are talking to them, said Olivier Jakob, analyst at Petromatrix in Zug, Switzerland.
After the last round of talks collapsed in January 2011, Western officials signalled there would be no more unless Iran was ready to tackle ways to ease their concerns.
The senior EU official said, however, there was some reason to believe talks might have more chance this time.
The first is that there is clear written commitment by Iran to be willing to address the nuclear issue in talks, the official said. Second is the unity of the international community ... Third is certainly sanctions.
Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear power plant and has far warmer relations with Tehran than Western nations do, has often stressed the need for talks and said coercive pressure on Tehran is counterproductive.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last month that global powers must work harder to seek agreement with Iran, warning that Tehran's appetite for concessions was waning as it moves closer to being able to build atomic weapons.
Ryabkov said he hoped fresh talks with Iran would address a proposal by president-elect Vladimir Putin for global powers to formally recognise Iran's right to enrich uranium, Tehran to submit its programme to full IAEA supervision, and international sanctions to be lifted.
UN VISIT TO IRANIAN MILITARY SITE?
Iran said on Tuesday it would let U.N. nuclear inspectors visit a military site where they have been repeatedly refused access to check intelligence suggesting explosives tests relevant to atom bombs has been conducted there.
Diplomats, however, cited a proviso in the Iranian statement saying that access to the Parchin site still hinged on a broader agreement on how to settle outstanding issues which the two sides have been unable to reach for five years.
An International Atomic Energy Agency report in November said that Iran had built a large containment chamber at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, to conduct high-explosives experiments that are strong indicators of an effort to design atomic bombs.
The IAEA requested access to Parchin during talks in Tehran in January and again in February, but the Iranian side refused.
Considering the fact that Parchin is a military site, granting access is a time-consuming process and cannot be permitted repeatedly, Iran's delegation to the Vienna-based IAEA said in the statement.
Years of tortuous negotiations have often come unstuck over procedural obstacles imposed by Iran since the IAEA first began seeking unfettered access in the country almost a decade ago to check indications of illicit military nuclear activity.
Diplomats say a broad deal on settling outstanding issues has been thwarted by Iran's refusal to let inspectors examine sites, peruse documents and question nuclear scientists cited in classified Western intelligence reports.
Israel has mooted pre-emptive bombings against Iran, a hawkish approach that Obama - wary of the risk of igniting a new Middle East war and a global surge in oil prices as he seeks re-election in November - has tried to restrain to give time for harsher sanctions and diplomatic pressure to bear fruit.
Obama and Netanyahu agreed on Monday to maintain coordination on Iran but continued to disagree on when the clock for non-military options should run out.
Israel insists that military action against Iran would be warranted to prevent it from attaining the capability of making nuclear weapons, as opposed to when it actually builds a device. Washington has not embraced that idea.
The pressure (on Iran) is growing but time is growing short, Netanyahu was quoted by aides as telling Obama.
Later, addressing the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Netanyahu said: None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.
At the podium, he held up a copy of a 1944 letter from the U.S. War Department to world Jewish leaders turning down their request to bomb the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.
Obama sought to reassure Netanyahu that Washington was keeping its own military option open as a last resort and has Israel's back. He added: We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.
On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told AIPAC: Military action is the last alternative when all else fails. But make no mistake, we will act if we have to.
Israel, believed to be the only nuclear weapons power in the Middle East, fears Iranian nuclear facilities may soon be buried so deep that they would be invulnerable to its bunker-busting bombs, which are less powerful than those in the U.S. arsenal.
U.S. officials say that while Iran may be manoeuvring to keep its options open, there is no clear intelligence that it has made a final decision to break out with a nuclear warhead.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Jim Wolf in Washington; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Myra MacDonald)