- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

VIENNA, Austria | Iran will sit down with the United States and five other world powers next month for wide-ranging discussions after more than a year without talks, Iranian and European officials said Monday.

The U.S., Iran, the European Union and the United Nations expressed hope that the talks could lead to substantive negotiations.

But Iran also sounded a tough note — accusing the U.S. of amassing “frightening and dreadful weaponry in … the Persian Gulf” and warning Israel and the United States that it is ready to defend itself against any attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The EU’s chief diplomat, Javier Solana, announced Iran’s readiness to follow up on an offer last week from the six powers for a new round of talks. Mr. Solana said the meeting scheduled for Oct. 1 could set the stage for progress in resolving the standoff over the Islamic Republic’s refusal to freeze uranium enrichment and heed other U.N. Security Council demands.

Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi, who issued the warning over military action, was more moderate in later comments, telling reporters that Iran is “open to discussion” on nuclear rights and obligations in a general context, even though it would not bargain over enrichment, which he called “our sovereign right.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu confirmed the U.S. would be sending a representative to the meeting with Mr. Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

“This is an important first step,” said Mr. Chu, in Vienna for the general conference of the 150-nation International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which began Monday.

Solana spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said representatives of the other six powers — Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — are also expected to attend.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe said the talks could ease tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The danger of misunderstanding and missteps are always high in that relationship,” he told reporters at the United Nations in New York. “At the same time, we have made it quite clear we expect Iran to improve its response to [the International Atomic Energy Agency].”

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country heads the rotating EU presidency, warned against undue expectations, considering the wide divide between Tehran and the six nations on nuclear and other issues.

“The meeting itself is a positive step, yes; but how positive, it remains to be seen,” he said.

The talks promise to 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.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns — who was also at the Geneva talks — would represent the U.S.

At Monday’s IAEA conference, Mr. Salehi, also an Iranian vice president, told the delegates that his country is ready to defend itself militarily.

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. Its stonewalling of an IAEA probe of allegations that it worked on developing nuclear weapons has further exacerbated tensions.

• Betsy Pisik contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York.

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