WASHINGTON — Alarmed by rising talk of war, the United States, Europe and other world powers announced Tuesday that bargaining will begin again with Iran over its fiercely disputed nuclear efforts. Tehran, for its part, invited inspectors to see a site suspected of secret atomic weapons work.
In Washington, President Barack Obama declared he had been working to avert war with Iran during intensive meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week. Israel, fearing the prospect of a nuclear Iran, has been stressing a need for possible military action, but Obama said sanctions and diplomacy were already working.
The president rebuffed Republican critics, who say his reluctance to attack Iran is a sign of weakness, holding up the specter of more dead Americans in another Mideast war.
"When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war," Obama said. "This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it."
Although Obama's remarks were suffused with American election-year politics — they came the same day as the biggest batch of Republican primaries to choose his opponent in November — he spoke for capitals around the world in warning that "bluster" and posturing to appear tough on Iran could edge the world closer to an avoidable war.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany had agreed to a new round of nuclear talks with Iran more than a year after suspending them in frustration.
Previous talks have not resolved international suspicions that Iran is engaging in a nuclear energy program as cover for an eventual plan to build a bomb. On a practical level, the negotiating group also has failed to strike a deal for Iran to stop enriching uranium that might one day be turned into bomb fuel.
The rush to diplomacy was partly an answer to increasingly hawkish rhetoric from Israel, which is publicly considering a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities this spring. Obama and Western allies say such a strike would be risky and premature, and that there is still time to persuade Iran that it is better off without nuclear weapons.
Iran insists that its program is only for energy production and other peaceful purposes.
In sitting down with Iran, Ashton said negotiators want "constructive dialogue" that 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.
Iran has a history of agreeing to talks or other concessions when it feels under threat, and Western leaders have grown skeptical that Iran will bargain in good faith..
Following gatherings in five-star European hotels, Iran often publicly rejects pressure but privately agrees to small compromises. Diplomats return home to consult their presidents and prime ministers, and Iran, the theory goes, presses on with its nuclear development work.
However, initially mild economic sanctions on Iran have grown stronger and more difficult for the government to circumvent. The oil-rich country is still able to sell its oil, mostly in Asia, but labors under severe banking restrictions that will get far tougher this summer. Europe also imposed an unprecedented oil embargo on Iran, to take effect in July.
Obama and others said diplomacy and such sanctions should be given more time
Iran appeared to partially answer concerns Tuesday from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency that it has something to hide, by announcing long-sought access to its Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran. The IAEA has singled out the complex, which Iran had long refused to open for inspection.
Terms appeared limited and unclear in Iran's announcement.
In Washington, 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. He declared anew that his policy on Iran is not one of containment but of stopping Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, said 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
Obama publicly rejected the assertion, heard most loudly from Republicans and Israelis, that the window for diplomacy was closing.
"It is deeply in everybody's interests — the United States, Israel and the world's — to see if this can be resolved in a peaceful fashion," Obama said. "This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or month or two months is not borne out by the facts."
A day earlier, Netanyahu said Israel could not afford to wait much longer. Following a lengthy meeting with Obama at the White House, he accused Iran of a shell game that allows it to get ever closer to a bomb.
A leading Democratic senator emerged from discussions with Netanyahu on Tuesday saying he was convinced that an Israeli strike was likely. Asked whether he had made such a decision, Netanyahu would say only that he had decided not to talk about it.
"I think it's likely because Iran is not responding to the international call for it to abide by the U.N. resolutions," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. "Iran is violating six different U.N. resolutions. I think that being the case, they continue to do it, don't open up their uranium facilities to inspection and don't stop the enrichment of uranium, then I would say an attack on them by Israel is very likely."
The impact of the Iran debate on domestic American politics was underscored as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich took time while competing for votes in the high-stakes Super Tuesday primaries to join the speakers' lineup at the same pro-Israel gathering that was part of the reason for Netanyahu's trip to Washington.
Santorum appeared in person and immediately criticized Tuesday's offer by the United States, European countries, Russia and China to resume talks with Iran. He termed it "another appeasement, another delay, another opportunity for them to go forward while we talk."
Romney, in a video appearance, assailed the administration's approach on Iran, saying, "Hope is not a foreign policy."
Israel's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, said that his nation had achieved its objective of putting Iran at the top of the agenda in Washington and beyond while spelling out to the U.S. that Israel will decide how best to defend itself.
"I leave with the sense that we as Israelis have to sit down among ourselves and digest what the Americans told us," Amidor said.
Ali Akbar Dareini reported from Tehran. Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna and Donna Cassata and Amy Teibel in Washington contributed to this report.