US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
WASHINGTON – The United States on Friday welcomed Iran’s indication that it was willing to return to talks, after the world powers leading the negotiations received a formal letter from Tehran to do so.
"We think this is an important step and we welcome the letter," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said following a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
She described the Iranian letter as appearing to accept that its nuclear program would be a subject of talks, whereas it has refused to broach the topic in prior rounds of negotiations.
Ashton, who appeared alongside Clinton at a State Department press conference, also described the letter as having “no preconditions and a recognition of what we’ll be talking about,” but said that it must be possible to “sustain” any new negotiations. Therefore, she said the world powers – the US, England, France, Germany, China and Russia – “need to set in train the process whereby we can be clear what it is we mean to achieve and what we’re expecting from the Iranians.”
Both leaders said they were still evaluating the letter and formulating their formal response.
Iran's letter to Ashton, which was obtained by Reuters on Thursday, proposed resuming the stalled talks and said Tehran would have "new initiatives" to bring to the table.
But the brief letter, which responded to a letter Ashton sent to her Iranian counterpart in October, offered no specific proposals, leaving a question mark over Tehran's willingness to enter substantive negotiations on its nuclear work.
The United States and its allies suspect Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability under cover of a declared civilian nuclear energy program, and believe Tehran has used talks only as a time-buying tool, not a pathway to agreement.
Iran says it is enriching uranium only for civilian purposes.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington and its allies would be on guard against any more "false starts" to the negotiation process.
"We've had negotiations that started and fizzled, or negotiations that ate up a lot of time and didn't go where they needed to go," Nuland said.
"We want to make sure ... if we go forward, and a decision has not been made, that it is well-planned, well-coordinated among us and that we're absolutely clear as unified group about our expectations."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday that a Feb. 20-21 visit to Iran by top UN nuclear watchdog officials would help determine whether Tehran was serious about tackling international concerns.
The UN team, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency's chief inspector, will again try to extract Iranian explanations, after three years of stonewalling, for an IAEA investigation driven by intelligence reports that suggest Tehran has researched sophisticated ways to build atomic bombs.
Following an IAEA report in November that cast new doubts over Iran's nuclear work, the United States and EU adopted sanctions meant to shut down Iran's oil export industry, the world's fifth largest.
The clampdown on Iranian oil would take full effect in July, and would join an escalating range of UN and unilateral sanctions which western officials say are putting unprecedented pressure on Iran's economy.
Ashton said the world powers, known as the P5+1, which made no headway in its last talks with Iran on the nuclear issue in Istanbul in January 2011, said the letter from chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili contained "no preconditions and a recognition of what we'll be talking about."
"The next question really is to look at then where we left off in Istanbul," Ashton said, noting a series of suggested confidence-building measures such as greater scope for inspections.
"We also said at that time they could come forward with their own ideas about what they wanted to do, so that this was a genuine, open process," Ashton said.
Clinton stressed, "We must be assured that, if we make a decision to go forward, we see a sustained effort by Iran to come to the table, to work until we have reached an outcome that has Iran coming back into compliance with their international obligations.”