- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

VIENNA (AP) — Iran and world powers will meet next month for the first time in more than a year in an attempt to reduce tensions over Tehran’s refusal to curb its nuclear activities, a senior EU official said Monday.

But Iran also warned Israel and the United States that it is ready to defend itself if either country ever launches a military attack against its atomic facilities.

The two developments set the tone for Monday’s opening of the general conference of the 150-nation International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

In Belgium, Javier Solana, the EU’s chief diplomat, announced Iran’s readiness to follow up last week’s offer from the six powers for talks. The meeting — scheduled for Oct. 1 — could set the stage for substantive negotiations meant to reduce tensions over the Islamic Republic’s refusal to freeze uranium enrichment and heed other U.N. Security Council demands.

U.S. calls Iran’s bluff on talks

That meeting will formally be between Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. But Solana spokeswoman Christina Gallach said representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany are expected to be present during those talks.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, in Vienna for the IAEA conference, confirmed the U.S. would be sending a representative. “This is an important first step,” he told reporters.

The talks would be the first time the six countries meet with Iran since more than a year ago. A 2008 session in Geneva foundered over Iran’s refusal to discuss nuclear enrichment — despite a U.S. decision to send a representative to the talks in a break with past policy.

Iran still formally refuses to discuss the issue. But the U.S. and its partners decided last week to agree to talks with Tehran in hope that broad negotiations would eventually grow to encompass enrichment and related topics.

Israel and the U.S. have warned in the past that force could be used as a last resort, if Iran continued to defy the Security Council regarding its alleged efforts to build nuclear weapons. At Monday’s IAEA conference, Iran nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi told the delegates that his country is ready to defend itself militarily.

“We are … being continuously threatened with attacks on our nuclear facilities,” Salehi told the conference. “Such a vigilant nation, while taking every threat seriously, is in the meantime confident of its capacity to defend itself.”

In blunt criticism of the U.S., he accused Washington of amassing “frightening and dreadful weaponry in … the Persian Gulf” in the pretext of acting in America’s national interest, while denying Iran its right to develop enrichment for peaceful purposes.

“This hovering of threats achieves nothing but adding to my great nation’s determination and solidarity,” Salehi said.

Tehran says it wants to use enrichment technology to create nuclear fuel, but there are international fears that it seeks to reconfigure its program and make the fissile core of warheads.

Iran is now under three sets of Security Council sanctions — primarily for its refusal to mothball its enrichment program. It’s stonewalling of an IAEA probe of allegations that it worked on developing nuclear weapons has further exacerbated tensions.

Touching on those concerns, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the meeting in Vienna of outstanding “questions and allegations that cast doubt on the peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“If we are to restore confidence in the exclusive peaceful nature of its nuclear program, Iran needs … to clarify these issues, especially the difficult and important questions” pertaining to its alleged weapons-related experiments, he said.

While welcoming the prospects of renewed dialogue with Iran, ElBaradei was indirectly critical of Washington.

Citing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein as an example of blood needlessly shed, he urged restraint in the use of force to resolve international disputes.

Noting that the Iraq war was justified by claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — and that no such arms were found — ElBaradei said that “if history has taught us anything, it is surely that force rarely solves problems. So we had better stick to diplomacy.”

ElBaradei was at the forefront of those arguing against the invasion in 2003, saying the weapons allegations remained unproven.

AP Writer Slobodan Lekic contributed to this story from Brussels.

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