U.S. accepts Iran's offer of talks with major powers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it would accept Iran’s offer of wide-ranging talks with major powers despite the Islamic Republic’s stated refusal to discuss its nuclear program.

“We will seek an early meeting and we will seek to test Iran’s willingness to engage,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana issued a statement in Brussels saying he was seeking an urgent meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to try to resolve Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. State Department made clear that Solana wanted to arrange a meeting between Iran and senior officials from the six major powers that have been seeking to resolve the nuclear dispute with Tehran.

The United States and its allies suspect Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a cover for developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying that the program is solely intended to produce electricity.

The major powers, which include permanent U.N. Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States as well as Germany, offered Iran trade and diplomatic incentives in 2006 in exchange for halt to uranium enrichment.

They improved the offer last year but retained the demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, something Tehran has ruled out as a precondition.

Iran on Wednesday handed over a five-page proposal that offered wide-ranging talks with the West but was silent on its nuclear program.

U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging a policy of engagement toward Iran and the State Department said it wanted the so-called P5+1 nations to meet Iranian officials now to see if they were willing to talk substantively.

“We seek direct negotiations. We want to see Iran sit down face to face with the P-5+1 countries and address all of the issues that we have concern about, including the nuclear issue,” Crowley said. “If we have a meeting, we’re going to bring up the nuclear issue, and we’ll see how Iran responds to that.”

Obama has suggested Iran may face harsher international sanctions, possibly targeting its imports of gasoline, if it does not accept good-faith talks by the end of September.

But Russia, which has veto power in the U.N. Security Council, on Thursday all but ruled out oil sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Iran, the world’s fifth-biggest crude producer, is seen as vulnerable to oil sanctions because it imports 40 percent of its gasoline to supply the cheap fuel that Iranians see as their birthright.

Diplomats acknowledge that there is little chance of the Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran’s gasoline imports anytime soon, but they say it could tighten other sanctions. Individual countries could also enact sanctions on their own.

“We’re going to assess where we are during the course of this month,” Crowley said. “Then at the end of the year, we’ll be able to draw some conclusions as to how successful our engagement offer has been.” (Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu)