WASHINGTON - Iran has told world powers it is ready to resume talks as soon as possible over its disputed nuclear program, according to a letter obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, an offer that could reflect its difficulty in coping with tough U.S. and European sanctions, or amount to another delaying tactic as it moves ahead with activities that could bring it closer to developing an atomic bomb.
The letter from chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was sent Tuesday, just a day before Iranin producing nuclear fuel and indicated it was on the verge of imposing an oil embargo on European countries to retaliate for sanctions. The Obama administration dismissed the announcements as unimpressive and said Tehran's erratic behavior was indicative of the squeeze it is feeling as a result of hard-hitting economic measures against it.
"We voice our readiness for dialogue on a spectrum of various issues which can provide ground for constructive and forward looking cooperation," Jalili wrote in the letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the point of contact for the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, who are demanding that Iran freeze all uranium enrichment.
Ashton had written Jalili in October, offering Iran a new round of talks toward an agreement that "restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program." The West fears Iran seeks nuclear weapons, and speculation is rife that Israel may launch a pre-emptive strike to set back the program.
Jalili welcomed Ashton's statement of respect for Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy use and said that "by committing to this approach, our talks for cooperation based on step-by-step principles and reciprocity on Iran's nuclear issue could be commenced," according to a translated copy of the letter.
A "constructive and positive attitude towards Islamic Republic of Iran's new initiatives in this round of talks could open (a) positive perspective for our negotiation," Jalili wrote. "Therefore, within this context, I propose to resume our talks in order to take fundamental steps for sustainable cooperation in the earliest possibility, in a mutually agreed venue and time."
But Jalili's four-paragraph, one-page letter offered no concessions. EU and U.S. officials declined to comment Wednesday, saying they were still studying the letter.
In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad oversaw the insertion of the first Iranian domestically made fuel rod into a research reactor in northern Tehran. Separately, the semiofficial Fars agency reported that a "new generation of Iranian centrifuges" had started operation at the country's main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in central Iran.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called these "provocative acts, defiant acts, statements that are designed to distract attention from the demonstrated impact that the sanctions are having, the demonstrated impact that the isolation of Iran is having."
"We are very confident that the sanctions have put enormous pressure on the Iranian economy and on the Iranian regime," he told reporters. "It is not unusual for Iran to try to distract attention from those uncomfortable facts and from its overall isolation by some burst of rhetoric or making some announcement."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Iranian uranium enrichment milestone is "not terribly new, and it's not terribly impressive."
"The Iranians have for many months been putting out calendars of accomplishments, and based on their own calendars, they are many, many months behind," she said.
Asked about Jalili's letter to Ashton, Nuland said the U.S. was speaking with its partners about it. Hinting at the contents of the Iranian response, however, she said: "It may be that they felt the need to bluster on their nuclear side even as they make clear that they do want to come back to the table for talks."
"The announcement today certainly is an attempt to show Iranian resolve in the face of international opposition, but they say that every day, and this doesn't really add any credibility to that threat," Albright said.
"But it does show continuing progress that's building toward a capability that if Iran made a decision to build nuclear weapons it could implement fairly quickly," he added.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, speaking to the Ohio Legislature on Wednesday, said the Iranian activity signaled the need for harsher sanctions on the Tehran regime.
"The world should realize if they won't stop them immediately, finally it might be too late. ... The time has come to impose more sanctions on Iran, tougher sanctions on Iran that might bring them to change their attitude. Until then, Iranians will continue," he said.