WASHINGTON — The United States, the European Union, China and Russia have agreed to resume long-stalled talks with Iran on its disputed nuclear program, potentially reviving the quest for a diplomatic settlement and easing fears of a military confrontation, the EU and the United States announced Tuesday.
Iran appeared to reciprocate, dropping a refusal to allow U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into a military complex suspected of being involved in what the United States, the EU, Israel and other powers charge is a secret nuclear weapons program. Iran says that its program is for peaceful uses.
The decision to resume talks with Iran represents a political gamble for President Barack Obama, who was hammered Tuesday as being too soft on the Islamic republic by the Republican candidates vying to challenge him in the November election.
A collapse of new talks also could increase the likelihood that Israel _ which views Iran's program as an existential threat _ could unilaterally attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly asserted that right during a two-day visit to Washington that ended Tuesday.
Obama, however, insisted Tuesday at a news conference that there is a "window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically" — an apparent reference to a U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran hasn't yet decided to build a nuclear warhead.
"That's the view of our top intelligence officials. It's the view of top Israeli intelligence officials," Obama said. Netanyahu, whose visit included a two-hour meeting with Obama, also signaled Monday that he was willing to allow more time for diplomacy.
Obama, who has refused to rule out U.S. military action against Iran, stressed that even if negotiations resume, the United States would continue tightening unilateral sanctions that — combined with recently stiffened EU measures — have begun doing serious damage to Iran's economy.
"We are going to continue to apply the pressure, even as we provide a door for the Iranian regime to walk through where they could rejoin the community of nations by giving assurances to the international community that they're meeting their obligations and they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon," Obama said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton released a letter to Iranian Foreign Minister Saeed Jalili in which she said that Britain, Germany, France, the United States, China and Russia — collectively known as the P5 Plus One — have agreed to resume talks with Iran to resolve "longstanding concerns" over its nuclear program.
The six powers, Ashton wrote, "hope that Iran will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress."
The date and location of the talks still must be determined, but there has been speculation that they could take place in Turkey.
Concerns that Iran is developing nuclear bomb-making capability have been fueled by a November IAEA report laying out extensive evidence that Iran researched building a nuclear warhead for an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The agency said Iran still might be pursuing some aspects of the "militarization" effort in secret.
In its latest report, the agency last month said that Iran has recently accelerated uranium enrichment at its main nuclear complex at Natanz, and at a plant built deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom in an apparent effort to shield it from air strikes.
Iran claims that it is purifying 3.5 percent enriched uranium to 20 percent for fuel for a research reactor used to make radioactive isotopes for medicinal purposes. Experts, however, say that it's accumulating a large stock of 20 percent enriched uranium that will allow Iran to produce highly enriched bomb fuel faster, if it decides to do so.
The Islamic republic concealed its program from IAEA inspectors for 18 years until 2002, when it was disclosed by an Iranian opposition group that reportedly was fed the information by Israeli intelligence. The program was built with technology and know-how that Iran bought from a smuggling ring headed by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Iran argues that it is allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful uses as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the keystone of the international system designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Ashton's letter was a response to a Jan. 14 letter from Jalili accepting her offer to resume negotiations.
Jalili's letter is seen by some experts as evidence that recently approved U.S. and EU sanctions designed to strangle Iran's income from petroleum exports have begun to seriously bite, leaving the country short of hard cash, disrupting its foreign trade and forcing a devaluation of its currency. The U.S. and EU measures are in addition to four rounds of U.N. sanctions.
"It seems likely that the increased pressure might have prompted this willingness to come back to the table on Iran's part, but there is no doubt that in the past, they've used negotiations as a stalling tactic," said Valerie Lincy of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a Washington policy institute.
But Iran also has responded to the stricter sanctions with a series of defiant gestures, including war games and a threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway at the southern end of the Persian Gulf through which some 20 percent of global oil supplies are shipped.
There are no assurances that the new talks will actually take place, let alone proceed beyond a first round.
Iran last weekend held parliamentary elections in which a majority of seats were won by hard-liners aligned with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who appears more open to negotiations with the six powers.
Moreover, it's uncertain if Iran will agree to undertake — without immediately getting anything in return — what the White House called "concrete and practical steps" toward dispelling the concerns about its program. The last round of negotiations collapsed in part when Iran demanded the lifting of sanctions as a precondition to the talks.
A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said that the new talks also would end if Iran renewed that demand.
"We would expect them to begin moving toward meeting existing U.N. demands without imposing unrealistic preconditions," the diplomat said.
Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said that sanctions would continue until Iran fully complies with all U.N. resolutions, which include a demand that it suspend uranium enrichment.
The resolutions also require Tehran to reveal the history of its program, clear up IAEA questions about its alleged warhead research and halt the construction of a heavy water reactor.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that a long-standing offer to extend economic assistance and other incentives to Iran in return for its cooperation remained on the table.
"The onus will be on Iran to convince the international community that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful," Hague said.
Iran announced that it would grant IAEA inspectors access to the Parchin military complex near Tehran — from which inspectors were barred during visits to the Islamic republic in January and February — once the sides agree on guidelines, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.
Parchin is suspected of housing a massive vessel in which Iranian experts tested conventional high explosives used for nuclear weapons triggers. Recent news reports have raised the possibility that Iranian technicians may have been sanitizing the facility, eliminating traces of the high explosive tests, in preparation for an IAEA inspection.
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