WASHINGTON — The United States and five other countries have agreed to resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the European Union informed Iranian officials Tuesday, a development that rekindled hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
"I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue," EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton announced in a statement broadcast from the alliance's Brussels headquarters. "We hope that Iran will now enter a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress."
But Ashton warned in a letter to the Iranians that they must "engage seriously and without preconditions," wording that reflected Western concerns that Iran might seek to use negotiations to divide its adversaries and buy more time to build up its enriched uranium stockpile.
The negotiations between Iran and 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 talks with world powers on its nuclear program, Iranian state TV 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," he told state TV.
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.
Iran's leaders fear that visits to military sites based on Western information are a cover for espionage and possible covert military operations.
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.