Global powers on Tuesday offered to resume in coming weeks long-stalled talks with Tehran over its contested nuclear drive, seen as key to defusing tension between Israel and Iran.
"On behalf of China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A time and venue for what are variously known as the P5+1 or E3+3 talks -- five UN Security Council members plus Germany, or three EU powers plus China, Russia and the US -- still needs to be agreed, added Ashton, who represents world powers in the talks.
But a senior EU official speaking on condition of anonymity said exploratory talks were expected "in the coming days" though the negotiations proper were unlikely to kick off before Iran's New Year celebrations, later this month.
"We don't want to have talks for talks," the source said. "They're very very important talks and we do not want them to fail."
After several failed rounds, "we hope that this time Iran is ready", said the source, adding that for the first time there was "a clear written commitment by Iran to be willing to address the nuclear in talks".
Tehran at talks that collapsed in Istanbul just over a year ago refused to address questions on its nuclear programme, demanding what diplomatic sources dubbed "pre-conditions", such as the lifting of sanctions.
In a February 14 letter to Ashton, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said Tehran was ready to resume the deadlocked talks at the "earliest" opportunity as long as its right to peaceful atomic energy was respected.
His letter, a long-belated response to one from Ashton in October, came as world powers moved to adopt unprecedented economic sanctions against Tehran, including an EU oil ban due to come into force on July 1.
"Our approach to sanctions has been proven to be the right one -- not targeted against the population but meant to change the Iranian approach to the nuclear file," the EU source said.
Sanctions were ramped up in the past three months after the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report it had evidence the Islamic republic appeared to be conducting research on atomic warheads.
Both sides are expected to offer so-called "confidence-building" measures at the talks, with global powers ready for instance to help boost safety at Iran's civil nuclear power stations or assist Tehran in fighting drug trafficking.
But that would be on condition of progress in Iran working with IAEA inspectors and assurances that it is not on the cusp of producing weapons-grade uranium, diplomatic sources said.
Western powers suspect Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, a charge denied by Tehran which says its atomic programme is for purely peaceful purposes.
In Vienna on Tuesday, Iran said it might drop its opposition to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visiting its Parchin military base thought to be central to its suspected nuclear weapons drive.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said world powers aimed to show Iran their willingness to seek a diplomatic solution "by testing its desire to talk and by offering it the opportunity to respond to our legitimate concerns."
"It is for Iran to seize this opportunity," Hague said in a statement. "It is time for Iran ... to show the world that it wants a peaceful, negotiated solution to the nuclear issue."
Obama gave a strong nod to Israel's refusal to contemplate a nuclear-armed Iran, acknowledged its right to self-defence and vowed he would "not hesitate to use force" where necessary.
But he made clear he would only contemplate a military option after all diplomatic paths had been exhausted and as new sanctions took effect.
In her letter Tuesday to Jalili, Ashton said:
"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 consistent with the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)."
Source: AFP Global Edition