By ALI AKBAR DAREINI, Associated Press
TEHRAN, Iran - Efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's disputed nuclear program appeared to get a boost Tuesday when world powers agreed to a new round of talks with Tehran, and Iran gave permission for inspectors to visit a site suspected of secret atomic work.
The two developments appeared to counter somewhat the crisis atmosphere over Iran's nuclear program, the focus of talks in Washington between President Barack Obama and Israel's visiting prime minister.
Speaking at his first news conference this year, Obama said he saw a "window of opportunity" to use diplomacy instead of military force to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Obama also reiterated that his policy on Iran is not one of containment, but of stopping Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. and its allies say Iran is on a path that could eventually lead to the production of a nuclear weapon. Iran denies that, insisting that its program is for energy production and other peaceful purposes.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany agreed to a new round of nuclear talks with Iran more than a year after suspending them in frustration. Previous talks have not achieved what the powers want - an end to uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.
Ashton said in a statement that the EU hopes Iran "will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress in resolving the international community's long-standing concerns on its nuclear program."
The time and venue of the new talks have not been set.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Iran must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and stop uranium enrichment. "We still believe diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solution we seek," he said in a statement.
Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, said in a statement that the onus would "be on Iran to convince the international community that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for a diplomatic solution. "A nuclear-armed Iran must be prevented," he said.
Ashton was responding to a February letter from Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, in which he proposed new discussions.
This week Obama warned the U.S. would use military action to protect its interests if necessary, while appealing for time for sanctions against Iran to show their affects. In his public statements during a visit to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Obama for his support but did little to counter concerns that Israel might go ahead on its own with an attack on Iran. Israel considers Iran an existential threat because of its nuclear program and its references to destruction of the Jewish state.
The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency last year published a report that included what it said was evidence of Iranian activity that could be linked to weapons development. The head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said Monday that his organization has "serious concerns" that Iran may be hiding secret atomic weapons work, singling out the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran.
On Tuesday, Iran appeared to respond partially to those concerns, granting long-sought permission to IAEA inspectors to visit the Parchin compound. Iran describes the site as a military base, not a nuclear facility.
The semi-official ISNA news agency stated a key condition: such a visit would require an agreement between the two sides on guidelines.
"Given that Parchin is a military site, access to this facility is a time-consuming process, and it can't be visited repeatedly," ISNA quoted the Iranian statement as saying. It added that following repeated IAEA demands, "permission will be granted for access once more."
Inspecting Parchin was a key request by senior IAEA teams that visited Tehran in January and February. Iran rebuffed those demands at the time, as well as attempts by the nuclear agency's team to question Iranian officials and secure other information linked to the allegations of secret weapons work.
The Parchin complex has been often mentioned in the West as a suspected base for secret nuclear experiments - a claim Iran consistently denies. IAEA inspectors visited the site in 2005, but only one of four areas on the grounds, reporting no unusual activities.
Last year, IAEA's report said there were indications Tehran has conducted high-explosives testing to set off a nuclear charge at Parchin. Iran denied the atomic activity and insisted that any decision to open the site rests with the armed forces.
"We have our credible information that indicates that Iran engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices," Amano said told reporters Monday outside a 35-nation IAEA board meeting in Vienna, describing his sources as "old information and new information."
Tehran has dismissed the charge, saying it was based on "fabricated documents" provided by a "few arrogant countries," a phrase Iranian authorities often use to refer to the U.S. and its allies.
Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Julie Pace in Washington, David Rising in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.