TEHRAN (Reuters) – A senior Iranian official said Tehran was ready for negotiations with the West on its disputed nuclear program based on mutual respect and without preconditions, state television reported on Tuesday.
U.S. President Barack Obama has given Iran until September to take up a six-power offer of talks on trade benefits if it shelves sensitive nuclear enrichment, or face harsher sanctions.
Iranian officials have made similar statements in the past about possible discussions on Tehran’s nuclear activities, while vowing not to back down in the row with the West.
But political turmoil in the Islamic state following its June election clouded prospects for dialogue and Tuesday’s announcement may come as a positive surprise for Washington, even though it did not mention next month’s deadline.
“Talks without preconditions is Iran’s main stance in negotiations on the nuclear issue,” Iran’s envoy to the U.N. nuclear agency watchdog, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was quoted as saying by state television.
“Soltanieh announced Iran’s readiness to take part in any negotiations with the West based on mutual respect,” the television report said.
The West suspects Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, says its program is aimed at peaceful power generation and has ruled out suspending or freezing its activities.
The poll and its turbulent aftermath have plunged Iran into its biggest internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution, exposing deepening divisions within its ruling elite and also further straining relations with the West.
Obama’s offer of engagement with Iran if it “unclenched its fist” ran into trouble after Iran accused the United States and other Western nations of inciting protests after the election, and Washington strongly condemned the government’s crackdown.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has signaled a tougher approach toward the West, declaring last month that his next government “would bring down the global arrogance,” a term used to refer to the United States and its allies.
Ahmadinejad’s reformist opponents say the June vote was rigged to secure his re-election. He denies it.
Obama initially set an end-of-year deadline to review his administration’s policy of engagement with Iran but then brought that forward to late September, to coincide with the next G-20 gathering of rich and emerging nations.
Tehran has withheld a concrete answer for months in what, diplomats say, amounts to buying time for enrichment expansion.
Asked about the September deadline, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said last week: “The Iranian people always welcome dialogue, but within a framework which safeguards our national interests.”
“Naturally we are serious in defending our nuclear rights … and we will not accept any limitations in this regard,” he said.
The last time Iran held talks with major powers on its nuclear program was in July 2008 in Geneva. The six powers involved in the issue are: the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain.
Soltanieh reiterated that Iran’s nuclear work was peaceful and that it was being supervised by experts and hidden cameras of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).