ANKARA, (Reuters) – Iran’s foreign minister warned Arab neighbors on Thursday not to put themselves in a “dangerous position” by allying themselves too closely with Washington in the escalating row over Tehran’s nuclear activity.
Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, used for a third of the world’s seaborne oil trade, if pending Western moves to ban Iranian crude exports cripple its lifeblood energy sector, fanning fears of a descent into wider Middle East war.
Tehran, which denies suspicions it is seeking nuclear weapons, was riled earlier this week when Saudi Arabia asserted it could swiftly raise oil output for key customers if needed, a scenario that could transpire if Iranian exports were embargoed.
“We want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries 12,000 miles away from this region,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in English during a visit to Turkey.
The remark was an apparent reference to the alliance of Iran’s Arab neighbors with the United States, which has a huge fleet in the Gulf and says it will keep the waterway open.
“I am calling to all countries in the region, please don’t let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position,” he told Turkey’s NTV broadcaster.
Salehi added the United States should make clear that it was open for negotiations with Tehran without conditions. He referred to a letter Iran says it received from U.S. President Barack Obama about the situation in the Straight of Hormuz, the contents of which have not been made public.
“Mr. Obama sent a letter to Iranian officials, but America has to make clear that it has good intentions and should express that it’s ready for talks without conditions,” he said.
“Out in the open they show their muscles but behind the curtains they plead to us to sit down and talk. America has to pursue a safe and honest strategy so we can get the notion that America this time is serious and ready.”
The United States, like other Western countries, says it is prepared to talk to Iran but only if Tehran agrees to discuss halting its enrichment of uranium. Western officials say Iran has been asking for talks “without conditions” as a stalling tactic while refusing to put its nuclear program on the table.
With EU foreign ministers preparing to approve a phased ban on imports of Iranian oil at a meeting on January 23, Salehi said on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic was in touch with world powers to reopen talks frozen for a year.
Washington and the EU have denied this, saying they are still waiting for Iran to show it wanted serious negotiations addressing fears that it trying to master ways to build atom bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear energy program.
TARGETING IRANIAN CENTRAL BANK
In addition to an embargo on Iran’s economically vital oil exports, EU diplomats said member governments had agreed in principle to freeze assets of Iran’s central bank, but had yet to agree how to protect non-oil trade from sanctions.
Iranian politicians said Obama had expressed readiness to negotiate in a letter to Iran’s clerical supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“In this letter it was said that closing the Strait of Hormuz is our (U.S.) ‘red line’ and also asked for direct negotiations,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted lawmaker Ali Mottahari as saying.
Washington denied there were any new discussions under way about resuming talks with Iran, but declined to comment on whether Obama had written to Khamenei.
“There are no current talks about talks,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday.
“What we are doing, as we have said, is making clear to the Iranians that if they are serious about coming back to a conversation, where they talk openly about their nuclear program, and if they are prepared to come clean with the international community, that we are open to that,” she said.
The die was cast for international oil sanctions against Iran when Obama signed legislation on December 31 that would freeze out any institution dealing with Iran’s central bank, making it impossible for most countries to buy Iranian oil. Similar measures are expected from Europe this month.
“On the central bank, things have been moving in the right direction in the last hours,” one EU diplomat said on Wednesday. “There is now a wide agreement on the principle. Discussions continue on the details.”
The State Department denial about talks was echoed by a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the six world powers trying to engage with Iran.
“There are no negotiations under way on new talks,” he said in Brussels. “We are still waiting for Iran to respond to the substantive proposals the High Representative (Ashton) made in her letter from October.”
FAR APART OVER AGENDA FOR TALKS
Ashton underlined that talks must focus on Iran’s underground uranium enrichment activity, whereas Tehran has wanted to discuss only broader security issues up to now.
Tehran denies wanting nuclear bombs, saying its enrichment work is for power generation and medical applications.
But a U.N. nuclear watchdog report in November lent weight to concerns that Iran has worked on designing a nuclear weapon, and Tehran is shifting enrichment to an underground bunker in a mountain fortified against air attack.
Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal but sees Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a mortal threat, and the United States have not ruled out military action as a last resort to prevent an atomic “breakout” by Tehran.
However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that any decision about an Israeli assault on Iran was “very far off.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Iran had to be ready for serious negotiations. “It is significant that when we are discussing additional sanctions in the European Union an offer of negotiations emerges from Iran,” he said.
“We will not be deterred from imposing additional sanctions simply by the suggestion there may be negotiations. We want to see actual negotiations,” he told a news conference in Brazil.
The last talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – along with Germany stalled in Istanbul a year ago, with the parties unable to agree even on an agenda.
The six countries have also failed to agree on a common line in their relations with Iran.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao defended his country’s extensive oil trade with Iran against Western sanctions pressure in comments published on Thursday. Even so, he said Beijing firmly opposes any efforts by Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a last-ditch military option mooted by the United States and Israel would ignite a disastrous, widespread Middle East war. Russia has also criticized the new sanctions.