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By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Six world powers have accepted an Iranian offer for talks on its disputed nuclear programme, the European Union's top diplomat said on Tuesday, after a year's standstill that has increased fears of a slide into a new Middle East war.
The announcement by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton came shortly after Russia called for a resumption of face-to-face dialogue as soon as possible, saying an Iranian letter last month showed it was now ready for serious negotiations.
With Israel speaking increasingly loudly of resorting to military action, the talks could provide some respite in a crisis which has driven up oil prices and threatened to suck the United States into its third major war in a decade.
Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote to Ashton in February saying Tehran wanted to reopen negotiations and offering to bring unspecified "new initiatives" to the table.
"Today I have replied to Dr. Jalili's letter of February 14," Ashton, speaking on behalf of the six powers after weeks of consultations with them, said in a statement. "I have offered to
resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue."
Ashton, who represents the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in dealings with Iran, said the date and venue for the talks would now have to be agreed.
"Our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme, while respecting Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy," Ashton said in her reply to Jalili.
Western states are likely to tread cautiously, mindful of past accusations that Iran's willingness to talk has been a stalling tactic to blunt pressure and not a route to agreement.
The Islamic Republic's latest approach to the six powers coincides with unprecedented pain inflicted on its economy by expanding oil and financial sanctions.
The resumption of talks nonetheless could slow a drift towards military strikes to knock out Iran's nuclear programme, which the West fears aims to develop an atomic bomb and Tehran says is for peaceful energy purposes only.
Israel, which says its existence could be threatened if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, is losing confidence in Western efforts to rein in the Islamic Republic with sanctions and diplomatic pressure.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday that the Jewish state has made no decision on attacking Iranian nuclear sites, sources close to talks in Washington said. He, however, gave no sign of backing away from the option of military strikes.
Iran also said on Tuesday it would let U.N. nuclear inspectors visit a military site where they have been repeatedly refused access to check intelligence suggesting explosives tests relevant to atom bombs has been conducted there.
Diplomats, however, cited a proviso in the Iranian statement saying that access to the Parchin site still hinged on a broader agreement on how to settle outstanding issues which the two sides have been unable to reach for five years.
An International Atomic Energy Agency report in November said that Iran had built a large containment chamber at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, to conduct high-explosives experiments that are "strong indicators" of an effort to design atomic bombs.
The IAEA requested access to Parchin during talks in Tehran in January and again in February, but the Iranian side refused.
"Considering the fact that Parchin is a military site, granting access is a time-consuming process and cannot be permitted repeatedly," Iran's delegation to the Vienna-based IAEA said in the statement.
It added that the "process could be ... started when the agreement on modalities is reached" - suggesting Tehran had not relaxed its insistence that there must first be an omnibus agreement on how to settle questions about the nature of Iran's nuclear work before an inspection trip to Parchin could happen.
Iranian diplomats and IAEA officials were not immediately available for comment.
HISTORY OF FUTILE TALKS
Years of tortuous negotiations have often come unstuck over procedural obstacles imposed by Iran since the IAEA first began seeking unfettered access in the country almost a decade ago to check indications of illicit military nuclear activity.
Diplomats say a broad deal on settling outstanding issues has been thwarted by Iran's refusal to let inspectors examine sites, peruse documents and question nuclear scientists cited in classified Western intelligence reports.
Israel has mooted pre-emptive bombings against Iran, a hawkish approach that Obama - wary of the risk of igniting a new Middle East war and a global surge in oil prices as he seeks re-election in November - has tried to restrain to give time for harsher sanctions and diplomatic pressure to bear fruit.
Obama and Netanyahu agreed on Monday to keep up coordination on Iran but continued to disagree on when the clock for non-military options should run out.
Israel insists that military action against Iran would be warranted to prevent it from attaining the capability of making nuclear weapons, as opposed to when it actually builds a device. Washington has not embraced that idea.
"The pressure (on Iran) is growing but time is growing short," Netanyahu was quoted by aides as telling Obama.
Later, addressing the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Netanyahu said: "None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation."
At the podium, he held up a copy of a 1944 letter from the U.S. War Department to world Jewish leaders turning down their request to bomb the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.
Obama sought to reassure Netanyahu that Washington was keeping its own military option open as a last resort and "has Israel's back." He added: "We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue."
Israel, believed to be the only nuclear weapons power in the Middle East, fears Iranian nuclear facilities may soon be buried so deep that they would be invulnerable to its bunker-busting bombs, which are less powerful than those in the U.S. arsenal.
U.S. officials say that while Iran may be manoeuvring to keep its options open, there is no clear intelligence that it has made a final decision to "break out" with a nuclear weapon.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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