ANKARA Iran's foreign minister warned Arab neighbors on Thursday not to put themselves in a "dangerous position" by aligning themselves too closely with the United States in the escalating dispute 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 slide into wider Middle East war.
European Union foreign ministers are expected at a meeting on Monday to agree an oil embargo against Iran and a freeze on the assets of its central bank, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said, confirming diplomatic leaks.
Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil exporter, riled Iran earlier this week when it said 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 Washington, which maintains a big naval force 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," Salehi told Turkey's NTV broadcaster.
He 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.
IAEA CHIEF SAYS MUST ALERT WORLD ABOUT IRAN
The International Atomic Energy Agency chief said it was his duty to alert the world about possible military aspects to Iran's nuclear campaign, keeping the heat on Tehran ahead of a rare visit by senior IAEA officials for talks on January 29-31.
"What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons," he was quoted as saying in comments published in the Financial Times Deutschland on Thursday. "We want to check over everything that could have a military dimension."
An IAEA delegation, to be headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, is expected to seek explanations for intelligence information indicating Iran has engaged in research and development applicable to nuclear weapons.
Tehran denies wanting bombs, saying it is refining uranium only for electricity generation and medical applications.
Salehi said on Wednesday that Iran, the world's fifth biggest oil exporter, was in touch with world powers to reopen talks that he expected to be held soon.
Washington and the EU quickly 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.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said after meeting Salehi that all sides were willing to resume talks but the time and place need to be settled. "I will tell Ms. Ashton about the talks today," he told reporters, referring to the EU foreign policy chief who represents the powers on Iran.
"We have always said we are ready for dialogue," France's Juppe told reporters in Paris. "Ashton has made concrete offers, but sadly until today Iran has not committed transparently or cooperatively to this discussion process."
He added: "It's for this reason that to avoid an irreparable military option we have to strengthen sanctions."
Iran has wanted to discuss only broader international security issues, not its nuclear program, in meetings with the powers held sporadically over the past five years.
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 declined to comment on whether Obama had written to Khamenei.
The stage was set 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 crude.
Diplomats said the EU's 27 member states were still mulling details such as when an embargo would start. They were looking into a grace period that would end in July to help some debt-ridden EU states that rely on Iranian oil to adjust to a ban.
"On the central bank, things have been moving in the right direction...," an EU diplomat said. "There is now wide agreement on the principle. Discussions continue on the details."
CHINA DEFENDS OIL TRADE WITH IRAN
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao defended his country's extensive oil trade with Iran against Western sanctions pressure in comments published on Thursday. Nevertheless, he said, Beijing firmly opposes any Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
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 have also failed to agree on a common line in their approach to Iran, a lack of unity that led to a watering down of four earlier rounds of U.N. sanctions adopted since 2006.
An IAEA 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 Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that any decision about an Israeli assault on Iran was "very far off."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the last-ditch military option mooted by U.S. and Israeli leaders would ignite a disastrous, widespread Middle East war. Russia also opposes the new push for oil sanctions, calling it counterproductive.
(Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Phil Stewart in Washington, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Peter Graff)