* Obama says will not countenance Iran having nuclear
* EU's Ashton says talks in sight; venue, date to be decided
* Iran's Jalili says to present "new initiatives"
* Year-long diplomatic vacuum has stoked fears of war
* Iran says to let UN nuclear inspectors visit military site
(retops with Obama news conference)
By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS, March 6 President Barack Obama
said on Tuesday the United States 'will not countenance' Iran
developing a nuclear weapon but pledged to take a sober approach
to dealing with Tehran's nuclear programme.
Obama said the announcement of six-power talks with Iran
offered a diplomatic opportunity to defuse the crisis.
Amid mounting speculation that Iran's nuclear sites could be
attacked in coming months, the president said that American
politicians "beating the drums of war" had a responsibility to
explain the costs and benefits of military action.
Earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United
States would take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring
a nuclear weapon if diplomacy failed.
"Military action is the last alternative when all else
fails," he told the annual policy conference of the biggest U.S.
pro-Israel lobbying group. "But make no mistake, when all else
fails, we will act."
Six world powers have accepted an Iranian offer for talks on
its disputed nuclear programme, the European Union's top
diplomat said, after a year's standstill that has increased
fears of a slide into a new Middle East war.
The announcement by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton
came shortly after Russia called for a resumption of
face-to-face dialogue as soon as possible, saying an Iranian
letter last month showed it was now ready for serious
With Israel speaking increasingly loudly of resorting to
military action, the talks could provide some respite in a
crisis which has driven up oil prices and threatened to suck the
United States into its third major war in a decade.
Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote to Ashton in
February saying Tehran wanted to reopen negotiations and
offering to bring unspecified "new initiatives" to the table.
"Today I have replied to Dr. Jalili's letter of Feb. 14,"
Ashton, speaking on behalf of the six powers after weeks of
consultations with them, said in a statement. "I have offered to
resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue."
Ashton, who represents the United States, Russia, China,
France, Britain and Germany in dealings with Iran, said the date
and venue for the talks would now have to be agreed.
A senior EU official said these talks were not expected
before the Iranian new year in two weeks, though there would be
a series of preparatory meetings possibly in the coming days.
"Our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated,
long-term solution which restores international confidence in
the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme,
while respecting Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear
energy," Ashton said in her reply to Jalili.
Western states are likely to tread cautiously, mindful of
past accusations that Iran's willingness to talk has been a
stalling tactic to blunt pressure and not a route to agreement.
The Islamic Republic's latest approach to the six powers
comes at a time when it is suffering unprecedented economic pain
from expanding oil and financial sanctions.
The resumption of talks nonetheless could slow a drift
towards military strikes to knock out Iran's uranium enrichment
programme, which the West fears is geared to producing atomic
bomb fuel and Tehran says is for electricity only.
Israel, which says its existence could be threatened if Iran
is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, is losing confidence in
Western efforts to rein in the Islamic Republic with sanctions
and diplomatic pressure.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured U.S.
President Barack Obama on Monday that the Jewish state has made
no decision on attacking Iranian nuclear sites, sources close to
talks in Washington said. He, however, gave no sign of backing
away from the option of military strikes.
But the new prospect of diplomacy contributed to a fall in
oil prices on Tuesday, with Brent crude down $1.70 to
$122.10 by 1458 GMT.
The senior EU official said there was some reason to believe
talks with Iran might be productive.
"The first is that there is clear written commitment by Iran
to be willing to address the nuclear issue in talks," the
official said. "Second is the unity of the international
community ... Third is certainly sanctions."
Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear power plant and has
far warmer relations with Tehran than Western nations do, has
often stressed the need for talks and said coercive pressure on
Tehran is counterproductive.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last
month that global powers must work harder to seek agreement with
Iran, warning that Tehran's appetite for concessions was waning
as it moves closer to being able to build atomic weapons.
Ryabkov said he hoped fresh talks with Iran would address a
proposal by president-elect Vladimir Putin for global powers to
formally recognise Iran's right to enrich uranium, Tehran to
submit its programme to full IAEA supervision, and international
sanctions to be lifted.
UN VISIT TO IRANIAN MILITARY SITE?
Iran said on Tuesday it would let U.N. nuclear inspectors
visit a military site where they have been repeatedly refused
access to check intelligence suggesting explosives tests
relevant to atom bombs has been conducted there.
Diplomats, however, cited a proviso in the Iranian statement
saying that access to the Parchin site still hinged on a broader
agreement on how to settle outstanding issues which the two
sides have been unable to reach for five years.
An International Atomic Energy Agency report in November
said that Iran had built a large containment chamber at Parchin,
southeast of Tehran, to conduct high-explosives experiments that
are "strong indicators" of an effort to design atomic bombs.
Years of tortuous negotiations have often come unstuck over
procedural obstacles imposed by Iran since the IAEA first began
seeking unfettered access in the country almost a decade ago to
check indications of illicit military nuclear activity.
Israel has mooted pre-emptive bombings against Iran, a
hawkish approach that Obama - wary of the risk of igniting a new
Middle East war and a global surge in oil prices as he seeks
re-election in November - has tried to restrain to give time for
harsher sanctions and diplomatic pressure to bear fruit.
Israel insists that military action against Iran would be
warranted to prevent it from attaining the capability of making
nuclear weapons, as opposed to when it actually builds a device.
Washington has not embraced that idea.
"The pressure (on Iran) is growing but time is growing
short," Netanyahu was quoted by aides as telling Obama.
Later, addressing the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC,
Netanyahu said: "None of us can afford to wait much longer. As
prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the
shadow of annihilation."
U.S. officials say that while Iran may be manoeuvring to
keep its options open, there is no clear intelligence that it
has made a final decision to "break out" with a nuclear warhead.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Fredrik Dahl
in Vienna, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Jim Wolf in Washington;
Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Robert Woodward)