The European Union said Monday it is studying a new Iranian offer to resume talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, aiming to defuse an increasingly tense standoff with the Islamic state.
Protesting against Iran's human rights record and nuclear program
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, one of three EU ministers who have led efforts to engage Iran by offering benefits in return for pledges on its nuclear plans, said the bloc will reply shortly to Tehran's offer.
But, speaking a day after the new Iranian proposals aimed at avoiding being hauled before the UN Security Council, Straw underlined the need for Tehran to respond "positively" to a resolution by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog
"We've looked at the letter very carefully," Straw told reporters in Brussels as he arrived to host a meeting of EU foreign ministers. "The Iranians are under the obligation to respond positively to the resolution of the board of governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency in late September and we look to them to do that," he said.
Talks broke down
Talks between Iran and the 25-member European bloc broke off in August when Iran, under new hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, resumed uranium conversion in defiance of international calls to maintain a suspension. The United States has long accused the Islamic state of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, although it has backed European efforts to engage with Tehran so far.
Europe has become even more cautious since Ahmadinejad became president
On Sunday, Iran formally asked Britain, France and Germany -- which have led the EU diplomatic drive with Tehran -- to reopen the stalled talks, with top nuclear official Ali Larijani "insisting on the necessity of negotiations." In the Iranian letter, Larijani said that Iran would "welcome negotiations (with the Europeans) that are constructive and based on logic."
But the letter also insisted on "Iran's need to exercise its legitimate rights and to see its national interests guaranteed," news agencies said, apparently backing up Iran's announcement that it would soon embark on fresh nuclear fuel work and was seeking investors for uranium enrichment activities.
Straw confirmed Monday that "informal discussions" are continuing with the Iranians, despite the deadlock on the formal nuclear talks.
Hinging on Moscow?
The Iranian offer comes three weeks ahead of a Nov. 24 meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog which could theoretically send Iran to the Security Council and amid mounting concerns about the direction of Ahmadinejad's government.
The EU-3 has attempted to persuade Iran to permanently suspend uranium enrichment as a watertight guarantee that its nuclear program is peaceful.
Russia has so far prevented Iran from facing the Security Council
But Iran insists its right to enrichment is enshrined in both the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its additional protocol. Iran says it only wishes to enrich to the low-level purity required for reactor fuel but its enemies have accused Tehran of seeking to make a nuclear bomb.
Previous attempts to haul Iran before the UN Security Council have foundered over Russian opposition and Moscow is once again expected to play a key role in November's meeting.
Anti-Tehran demonstrators used Monday's EU talks to highlight their opposition to Europe's efforts to engage with the Islamic state.
Supporters of an Iranian opposition group demonstrate outside the EU Council
"Expel the mullahs from the UN" and "Mullahs are terrorists," read two banners brandished at the protest, kept away from the EU building where the ministers were meeting by a police blockade. "They are terrorists, they must go," chanted the demonstrators, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.