x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Iran 'ready for talks' on nuclear programme

Iranian president repeats that western sanctions will be ineffective, and says Tehran has no reason to shun negotiations.

Iran is ready to revive talks with world powers but harsh new western sanctions will not force Tehran to give into demands over its nuclear programme, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said yesterday.

The Iranian president said sanctions would backfire and leave Iran unscathed, and reiterated his government's position that the country does not need to sell oil to Europe.

"Why should we shun talks? Why and how should a party that has logic and is right shun talks?" he said. Instead, he accused the West of trying to scuttle negotiations as a way of further squeezing the Islamic Republic.

Analysts said hopes of any progress with talks would depend on whether Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, backs the president's position. The two men oversee rival hardline camps in the regime.

The ayatollah is particularly mistrustful of the West and some of his supporters believe Mr Ahmadinejad, despite his often strident rhetoric, wants to improve relations with the US.

The last round of talks between Iran and the major powers, consisting of the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, was held in Turkey in January 2011, but the negotiations collapsed.

The six powers say they are waiting for Iran's reply to a letter the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, sent in October, stressing that negotiations should focus on the "key question" of the Iranian nuclear issue. In the last two rounds of talks, Iranian officials wanted to talk about regional and global issues instead.

Meanwhile on Sunday the Iranian parliament will consider a ban on oil exports to the European Union in retaliation for the bloc's imposition on Monday of a phased oil embargo. The measure would add to the difficulties of struggling economies in southern Europe.

The EU sanctions give Iranian oil importers such as Greece, Spain and Italy time to find new suppliers, but Iran could rob them of an adjustment period by closing the tap immediately.

"At this point it could be bluster because Iran still needs the money, but Iranian politics have surprised us before, so we can't rule out there's a small chance they might do it," Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst in Israel, said yesterday.

The EU currently buys about 20 per cent of Iran's oil exports. Iran's intentions on the nuclear issue, meanwhile, may become clearer on Sunday when a senior team from the UN's nuclear watchdog makes a rare three-day trip to Tehran, at Iran's invitation.

The inspectors' main objective is to receive explanations for intelligence indicating that Iran has pursued research and development relevant to nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear programme is purely peaceful.

Iran has indicated before that it was ready for a new round of nuclear talks, but Mr Ahmadinejad is the highest-ranking official to make the offer publicly.

"This is simply the continuation of a long-held line. What is significant is that Ahmadinejad was saying this readiness for talks is in no way prompted by the sanctions," Scott Lucas, an Iranian expert at Birmingham University in England, said.

Mr Ahmadinejad said sanctions would backfire because Iran has minimum trade with the EU. The European measures follows US action also aimed at limiting Tehran's ability to sell oil, which accounts for 80 per cent of Iran's foreign revenue.

"It is the West that needs Iran and the Iranian nation will not lose from the sanctions," Mr Ahmadinejad said on a visit to the southern province of Kerman.

Even so, Iranian hardliners renewed a threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz after the EU sanctions were announced. The US has vowed to keep the vital oil trade route open.

Iranian state media picked up on a warning from the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday that, without offsets from other suppliers, global crude prices could rise by as much as 30 per cent if Iran halts oil exports as a result of US and EU sanctions.