updated 5/26/2005 5:58:10 AM ET 2005-05-26T09:58:10

Members of the World Trade Organization agreed Thursday to allow Iran to open negotiations to join the body that governs international commerce, trade officials said.

The United States, which repeatedly had blocked Iran’s long-held desire to join the WTO, raised no objections, the officials said. The WTO takes such decisions by consensus.

Iran first applied to join the WTO in 1996, but the U.S. blocked its application 22 times.

“This is an historical decision,” said Ujal Singh Bhatia, India’s ambassador to the WTO. “The principle of universality has been strengthened. We look forward to working with Iran for its accession.”

WTO membership is one of the rewards European Union negotiations have been offering Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program to ensure that it produces only electricity and not weapons. The United States said in March it would drop its veto on a start to Iran’s accession negotiations.

U.S. officials in Geneva declined to comment on the decision made by the WTO’s governing General Council.

For five years, Iran’s application was never even discussed because of U.S. objections. Since 2001, the application has been on the agenda of each of the WTO’s quarterly General Council meetings, but on every occasion until now it was blocked by the United States.

The council immediately created a working party for Iran’s accession, officials said. A separate group was also created for Sao Tome and Principe, a country off the western coast of Africa.

As a result of the decision Thursday, Iran now has observer status and can sit in all meetings of the WTO.

Some 30 countries — including Iraq, Russia and Saudi Arabia — now are involved in accession negotiations, a process that can take years. One country — Syria — still has a request pending for accession talks.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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