VIENNA — Iran will sit down with the United States and five other world powers next month for wide-ranging discussions after more than a year without talks, Iranian and European officials said Monday.
The U.S., Iran and European Union expressed hope that the talks could lead to substantive negotiations.
But Iran also sounded a tough note — accusing the U.S. of amassing "frightening and dreadful weaponry in ... the Persian Gulf" and warning Israel and the United States that it is ready to defend itself against any attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The EU's chief diplomat, Javier Solana, announced Iran's readiness to follow up an offer last week from the six powers for a new round of talks. Solana said the meeting scheduled for Oct. 1 could set the stage for progress in resolving the standoff over the Islamic Republic's refusal to freeze uranium enrichment and heed other U.N. Security Council demands.
‘Open to discussion’
Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi, who issued the warning over military action, was more moderate in later comments, telling reporters that Iran is "open to discussion" on nuclear rights and obligations in a general context, even though it would not bargain over enrichment, which he called "our sovereign right."
In an allusion to President Barack Obama's stated goals of global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, and offer to negotiate with Iran without conditions, Salehi said that if those aspirations "are translated into deeds then the environment will be conductive to future dialogue."
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu confirmed the U.S. would be sending a representative to the meeting with Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
"This is an important first step," Chu told reporters in Vienna for the general conference of the 150-nation International Atomic Energy Agency, which started Monday.
Solana spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said representatives of Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany are also expected to be present.
‘Meeting itself is a positive step’
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country heads the rotating EU presidency, warned against undue expectations, considering the wide divide between Tehran and the six nations on nuclear and other issues.
"The meeting itself is a positive step, yes, but how positive it remains to be seen," he said.
The talks would be the first time the six countries meet with Iran since more than a year ago. A 2008 session in Geneva foundered over Iran's refusal to discuss nuclear enrichment — despite a U.S. decision to send a representative to the talks in a break with past policy.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns — who was also at the Geneva talks — would represent the U.S.
"The point of all this is to sit down with the Iranians and explain directly, face to face, the choice that they have," he told reporters.
"They can go down one path, which leads to integration with the international community, or they can continue down another path which leads to isolation. And that's the path that we're concerned that they're on now, because they're not meeting their obligations to the international community."
"We have an opportunity here to present a united front — the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany — to show that the international community wants them to abandon their any plans they have for a militarization of their nuclear program."
Topics to include enrichment
Iran still formally refuses to discuss the issue. But the U.S. and its partners decided last week to agree to talks with Tehran in hope that broad negotiations would eventually grow to encompass enrichment and related topics.
Israel and the U.S. have warned in the past that force could be used as a last resort, if Iran continued to defy the Security Council regarding its alleged efforts to build nuclear weapons. At Monday's IAEA conference, Salehi, also an Iranian vice president, told the delegates that his country is ready to defend itself militarily.
"We are ... being continuously threatened with attacks on our nuclear facilities," Salehi told the conference. "Such a vigilant nation, while taking every threat seriously, is in the meantime confident of its capacity to defend itself."
Such a threat "achieves nothing (beyond) ... adding to my great nation's determination and solidarity," Salehi said.
Tehran says it wants to use enrichment technology to create nuclear fuel, but there are international fears that it seeks to reconfigure its program and make the fissile core of warheads.
Iran is now under three sets of Security Council sanctions — primarily for its refusal to mothball its enrichment program. It's stonewalling of an IAEA probe of allegations that it worked on developing nuclear weapons has further exacerbated tensions.
‘We had better stick to diplomacy’
Touching on those concerns, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the meeting in Vienna of outstanding "questions and allegations that cast doubt on the peaceful nature" of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"If we are to restore confidence in the exclusive peaceful nature of its nuclear program, Iran needs ... to clarify these issues, especially the difficult and important questions" pertaining to its alleged weapons-related experiments, he said.
While welcoming the prospects of renewed dialogue with Iran, ElBaradei was indirectly critical of Washington.
Citing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein as an example of blood needlessly shed, he urged restraint in the use of force to resolve international disputes.
Noting that the Iraq war was justified by claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — and that no such arms were found — ElBaradei said that "if history has taught us anything, it is surely that force rarely solves problems. So we had better stick to diplomacy."
ElBaradei was at the forefront of those arguing against the invasion in 2003, saying the weapons allegations remained unproven.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.