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U.S., Europe cautious on Iran nuke talks

WASHINGTON — The United States and European Union on Friday expressed cautious optimism that Iran is serious about returning to talks with world powers over its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they were continuing to study Iran's response to a proposal to restart the stalled negotiations. However, they said they welcomed Iran's professed willingness to hold talks as soon as possible without preconditions.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Ashton at the State Department, Clinton said the Iranian reply was "one we have been waiting for." But, she stressed that "if we do proceed it will have to be a sustained effort that will produce results."

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"We must be assured that if we make a decision to go forward, we see a sustained effort by Iran to come to the table to work until we have reached an outcome that has Iran coming back into compliance with their international obligations," Clinton said. "We're evaluating all of these factors. But I think it's fair to say ... that we think this is an important step and we welcome the letter."

Ashton said she was "cautious" but "optimistic" that talks could resume.

"I think it is good to see that the letter has arrived and there is a potential possibility that Iran may be willing to resume talks," she said.

Clinton and Ashton were referring to a letter from chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, which was sent to Ashton on Tuesday, in which he proposed new discussions. Ashton is 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.

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"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.

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.

Also Friday, the White House announced that national security advisor Tom Donilon will travel to Israel this weekend for discussions on Iran, Syria and other security issues. The United States and Europe have been arguing to Israel that the costs of a hit on Iranian nuclear sites outweigh the benefits.

President Barack Obama has said he does not think Israel has made a final decision to strike. Israeli officials have said the window for an effective strike is closing this spring.