Iran Offer for Nuclear Talks Accepted by Europe as Military Action Weighed

The European Union offered to restart negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, seeking a “full settlement” of the clash that has pushed up oil prices and raised the specter of war in the Middle East.

In a statement on behalf of China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear envoy, to meet her to seek an accord in which Iran would clarify questions about its nuclear program. Ashton responded in a letter to an Iranian overture last month to restart talks.

The renewed prospect of negotiations to dial back concerns about Iran’s program came hours after U.S. President Barack Obama called for more time to let diplomacy and sanctions solve the standoff. Obama spoke yesterday following talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Washington to seek support for a more aggressive approach to Iran.

“Our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” Ashton said in the letter, released today in Brussels. The EU (BKIR) envoy said she didn’t want a “repeat” of Istanbul, where talks with Iran broke down in January 2011.

The EU has set no deadlines for the start or conclusion of talks, a European aide told reporters. The 27-nation bloc has proposed a meeting in coming days to prepare talks, said the official, who declined to be identified under briefing ground rules. The formal discussions are likely to start only after Iranian new year March 20.

Oil Prices

The prospect of confrontation in a region with more than half the world’s oil reserves has sent crude prices soaring. Oil prices declined today, with crude oil for April delivery sliding 1.6 percent to $105.10 a barrel in New York.

Netanyahu, who takes his case to Congress today, gave a speech to American Jewish leaders in which he said he won’t let Israel live in the “shadow of annihilation.”

While Obama told the Israeli leader “there is still a window” for a diplomatic solution to the confrontation with Iran, Netanyahu told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that “none of us can afford to wait much longer.”

The U.S. and the EU have ratcheted up economic sanctions against Iran over concerns that the government in Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons. EU foreign ministers agreed in Janaury to ban oil imports from Iran and freeze the country’s central bank assets.

‘Earliest Possibility’

Jalili wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to Ashton that Iran wants direct talks at the “earliest possibility.” Ashton urged Iran to approach talks without preconditions and to focus on the nuclear program, though negotiators could address “other areas of interest” to Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said his country is willing to revive talks on its nuclear program, which his government has repeatedly insisted is for peaceful purposes.

“They claim that Iran doesn’t want negotiations but it isn’t so,” Ahmadinejad said Jan. 26 in the southeastern province of Kerman.

Obama has said he does not support a policy of containment and takes “no options off the table,” including a “military effort” to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. While thanking Obama for delivering a “strong speech” to Aipac, Netanyahu said Israel retains the option of acting on its own.

Since reaching a low for the last 12 months on Oct. 4, 2011, crude oil has risen 41 percent, in part because of concerns about tensions in the Persian Gulf and higher demand spurred by growth in countries such as China and the U.S.

To contact the reporters on this story: James G. Neuger in Brussels at jneuger@bloomberg.net; Patrick Donahue in Berlin at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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