“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 wrote in the letter to Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
The negotiations between Iran and the bloc dubbed the “P5-plus-1” – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – would resume at a “mutually convenient time and date,” Ashton said. The last talks with Iran, in January 2011, ended in deadlock.
The decision to resume talks came hours after Iran announced plans to open a key military base to nuclear inspectors and said it wanted new talks with world powers on its nuclear program, Iranian state television reported Tuesday.
But Iran insists that the visit to the Parchin military complex, about 18 miles southeast of the capital, can take place only after clear agreements are reached on resolving all outstanding issues between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog organization.
“Accessing military sites is extremely critical, and there should be a framework of action already set,” Soltanieh told state television.
During a second visit of a high-level IAEA team in February, Iran refused access to the site. According to Western intelligence reports, the Parchin complex may have been used to conduct high-explosives tests that the IAEA says are “strong indicators” of possible weapons development. Iran denies all charges of trying to fabricate a nuclear weapon and says there are no nuclear-related activities at Parchin.
Iran’s leaders fear that visits to military sites based on Western information are a cover for espionage and possible covert military operations.
“Imagine that we would constantly demand access to U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines,” said Sadollah Zarei, a columnist for the hard-line state newspaper Kayhan. “Naturally that would be a long debate.”
The IAEA is trying to operate against a backdrop of growing tensions between Iran and Israel, which is threatening to use military force to stop what it alleges is an Iranian plan to develop nuclear weapons.
By asking for clear agreements with the IAEA, Iranian officials apparently are trying to prevent being forced by new Western accusations to allow more inspections of other military bases. Iran’s nuclear officials also want a clear diplomatic track aimed at ending the long IAEA investigation into possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.
Soltanieh announced that Iran is seeking a date for new nuclear negotiations with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Germany.
He stressed that the country is “adamant” about continuing its cooperation with the IAEA.
President Obama sharply criticized his Republican presidential rivals Tuesday for talking “casually” about going to war with Iran, saying that when such decisions are made for political reasons, “we make mistakes.”
“What is said on the campaign trail – those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities,” Obama said during an afternoon news conference. “They are not commander in chief. When I see the casualness with which those folks talk about war, I am reminded of the costs involved in war.”
Speaking hours after Republican candidates spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on a need to harden the U.S. posture toward Iran, Obama said, “Those who are suggesting or proposing or beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be.”
He also said that, beneath what he called “a lot of bluster,” his Republicans rivals favor the same policy of economic sanctions backed by the threat of force that he has outlined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
“It’s also not just an issue of consequences for Israel if action is taken prematurely,” Obama said. “There are consequences to the United States as well. And so I do think that any time we consider military action, that the American people understand there’s going to be a price to pay. Sometimes it’s necessary. But we don’t do it casually.”
Obama’s first White House news conference since October ensured that he would have a share of the political spotlight on Super Tuesday that otherwise would have been centered on the Republican field. His remarks throughout – on Iran, immigration, women’s health, and housing – carried an election-year edge that he has been honing in recent months.
The president began by announcing a pair of housing initiatives that he previewed in his State of the Union address in January designed to help Americans with government-insured mortgages and members of the military.
The first would reduce refinancing fees on any loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and the second would require banks to review foreclosure proceedings over the past five years that may have incorrectly cost service members their homes.
“I’m not one of those people who believe that we should just sit by and wait for the housing market to hit bottom,” Obama said in a shot at Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney.
But the news conference was taken up largely by questions over his management of Israel, Iran, and the looming prospect of a Middle East war, a significant threat to his reelection effort.
It followed his weekend speech to AIPAC, and an Oval Office meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, whom he sought to persuade to hold off on a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities until a full array of economic sanctions take effect this summer.
His comments on Iran were far more politically pointed than they have been in the past, as he sought to cast the Republican contenders as comparative amateurs on matters of war and peace.
Polls show that much of the American public supports his foreign policy record, and Obama invoked his role as commander-in-chief Tuesday to criticize Republicans, without naming names, for failing to take military operations with sufficient seriousness after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“When we have in the past [made decisions to go to war], when we haven’t thought it through, and it gets wrapped up in politics, we make mistakes,” Obama said. “And typically, it’s not the folks who are popping off who pay the price. It’s these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price.”
Obama avoided weighing in directly on the Republican race. After listing several of Romney’s most severe criticisms of Obama, a reporter asked what his message for the candidate would be on this crucial primary day.
“Good luck,” he said with a smile.