TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has proposed Cairo as a venue for restarting talks with the US and other world powers over its controversial nuclear program, the country’s foreign minister said Wednesday.
Ali Akbar Salehi’s announcement was the latest indication of Tehran’s willingness to go back into the negotiations in hopes of wresting concessions from the West over stepped-up sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
Iran has also been trying to reach out to Egypt since the February 2011 fall of Hosni Mubarak, seeking to resume relations with the Arab state and extend its influence in the Middle East.
The Iranian foreign minister said Egypt has welcomed the Tehran offer and is now consulting about it with the six-nation group — the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Iran “has suggested that the next meeting be held in Cairo. Egypt has welcomed the proposal,” Salehi told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
“Egyptian officials are now consulting with the six-nation group … a date and a venue have not been finalized yet,” Salehi said.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and their deputies have been in discussions in recent weeks to restart the talks after the last round ended in stalemate in Moscow last June. Since then, Western sanctions have been pressing hard on the Iranian economy.
The Moscow talks made no headway on the West’s main demand — that Iran halt its highest-level uranium enrichment, which Washington and others worry could quickly be turned into nuclear warhead-grade material.
Iran insists it does not seek nuclear arms — repeatedly citing a 2005 edict by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that called atomic weapons a violation of Islamic tenets — and says it only wants reactors for electricity and medical research.
Iran’s leaders know the only route to ease the economic pressures — and possibly undercut threats of military action on its nuclear sites by Israel — is through potential deal-making with the six world powers, which include the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany.
If the talks restart, it would mark the first negotiations since the West stepped up unilateral sanctions against Tehran last summer, including a total oil embargo and banking restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for Iran’s Asian customers to pay for oil deliveries.
Iran depends on oil sales for about 80 percent of its foreign currency revenue. Its income from oil and gas exports has dropped by 45 percent as a result of the sanctions and the West is waiting to see if the measures force Tehran to give concessions at the negotiating table.
The six-nation group wants Iran to halt its 20 percent level of uranium enrichment, close down its underground Fordo enrichment site and ship out its higher-grade stockpile.
Iran says it will never give up its right to enrich uranium but has indicated it may be willing to suspend the 20 percent level enrichment in return for specific concessions from the West, such as lifting the sanctions.
Meanwhile, experts from the UN’s nuclear agency visited Tehran earlier this month but left making no headway in a separate probe of suspicions that Iran worked on atomic arms at the site southeast of Tehran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency suspects Iran conducted tests at the Parchin site that could be used to detonate a nuclear charge. Tehran denies the allegations, saying Parchin is only a conventional military facility.
Iran says the IAEA’s suspicions are based on forged intelligence provided by the CIA, Israel’s Mossad, Britain’s MI-6 and other intelligence agencies, and complains that Tehran has not been allowed to see the materials to respond to them.
Tehran says any future visits to Parchin must be under a deal that outlines the obligations of the UN agency and allows Tehran to inspect the documentation against it. Another round of talks with IAEA is planned for February 13 in Tehran.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.