MINNEAPOLIS — The White House said Saturday that international talks with Iran should focus on the country's nuclear program, a topic Tehran had ruled off limits until its foreign minister opened the door.
"We're not talking for talking's sake," presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "This may not have been a topic they wanted to be brought up, but I can assure you it's a topic that we'll bring up."
"The Iranians have a responsibility to the international community to walk away from their illicit nuclear weapons program," Gibbs added. "That's what the focus from our side will be in these talks, and that's our goal."
A day after the Obama administration said that it and five partner nations had accepted Iran's offer for talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that "should conditions be ripe, there is a possibility of talks about the nuclear issue."
Mottaki's statement appeared to be a reversal of Iran's consistent refusal to discuss its nuclear program and a significant step up from its proposal earlier in the week when Tehran said it was willing to talk, but not about its nuclear ambitions.
Speaking to reporters traveling with President Barack Obama for a health care rally in Minneapolis, Gibbs said the administration was disappointed with Iran's proposal issued Wednesday for international talks because it sidestepped the nuclear issue.
But with the latest development, Gibbs said, "We think this gives us an avenue to directly address with the Iranians about what we believe their responsibilities are, to put pressure on them throughout the international community and strengthen our hand as we move forward."
Such a meeting could lessen immediate pressure on Obama to abandon his diplomatic outreach to Tehran, which has yet to yield concrete results. Obama said in July that Iran should show a willingness to negotiate limits on its nuclear program by September or face consequences.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday that the U.S. and its negotiating partners – Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – agreed they must keep pressure on Iran while also seeking talks.
"Now we are willing to meet with Iran. We hope to meet with Iran," Crowley said. "We want to see serious engagement on the nuclear issue, in particular."
He added, "We are willing to address any other issues that they want to bring to the table. But, clearly, if Iran refuses to negotiate seriously, we – the United States and the international community and the Security Council – can draw conclusions from that. And then based on that, we'll make some judgments in the future."
In its proposal, Iran ignored a demand by the six world powers for a freeze of its uranium enrichment, which is suspected of leading to production of a nuclear weapon. Iran insists that its nuclear work is strictly for peaceful nonmilitary purposes.
Iran pronounced itself ready to "embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations."
On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country will neither halt uranium enrichment nor negotiate over its nuclear rights but is ready to sit and talk with world powers over "global challenges."
The decision to take up Iran's offer was communicated publicly Friday in Brussels, Belgium, by Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief who is an intermediary for the six powers. They represent the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
The Obama administration has expressed interest in discussing numerous other issues with Iran, including cooperation in stabilizing two Iranian neighbors – Afghanistan and Iraq – as well as alleged Iranian support for terrorist groups.