VIENNA — Iran warned the U.S. and Israel on Monday it will repel any attack – while also tamping down tensions by agreeing to meet with Washington and other world powers more than a year after talks broke down over Tehran's refusal to curb its nuclear activities.
The U.S., Iran and European Union expressed hope the Oct. 1 talks could lead to substantive negotiations – despite Iranian warnings it would not even discuss meeting U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze uranium enrichment.
But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said enrichment – which can make both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead material – "would be part of the discussion," along with Tehran's "illicit nuclear weapons program."
The prime minister of Israel, Iran's most bitter foe, was quoted as urging tougher action, including additional sanctions to cripple Tehran's economy and turn Iranians against the government.
Iran also sounded a tough note – accusing the U.S. of amassing "frightening and dreadful weaponry in ... the Persian Gulf" and warning Israel and the United States that it is ready to defend itself against any attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The EU's chief diplomat, Javier Solana, announced Iran's readiness to follow up an offer last week from the six powers for a new round of talks. Solana said the meeting could set the stage for progress in resolving the standoff over the Islamic Republic's refusal to freeze uranium enrichment and heed other U.N. Security Council demands.
Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi, who issued the warning over military action, was more moderate in later comments, telling reporters that Iran is "open to discussion" on nuclear rights and obligations in a general context, even though it would not bargain over enrichment, which he called "our sovereign right."
In an allusion to President Barack Obama's stated goals of global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, and offer to negotiate with Iran without conditions, Salehi said that if those aspirations "are translated into deeds, then the environment will be conducive to future dialogue."
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu confirmed the U.S. would be sending a representative to the meeting with Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
"This is an important first step," Chu said in Vienna for the general conference of the 150-nation International Atomic Energy Agency, which began Monday.
Solana spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said representatives of Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany are also expected.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country heads the rotating EU presidency, warned against undue expectations, considering the divide between Tehran and the six nations on nuclear and other issues.
"The meeting itself is a positive step, yes, but how positive it remains to be seen," he said.
The talks would be the first since a 2008 session in Geneva foundered over Iran's refusal to discuss nuclear enrichment – despite a U.S. decision to send a representative to the talks in a break with past policy.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns – who was at the Geneva talks – would again represent the U.S.
"The point of all this is to sit down with the Iranians and explain directly, face to face, the choice that they have," Kelly said.
"They can go down one path, which leads to integration with the international community, or they can continue down another path which leads to isolation. And that's the path that we're concerned that they're on now, because they're not meeting their obligations to the international community."
Gibbs, the White House spokesman, suggested any Iranian refusal to discuss demands that it curb enrichment or address concerns about its alleged weapons program could backfire.
"If it's something they don't want to talk about, I think that will speak volumes around the world," he told reporters.
The U.S. decision to talk with Iran appeared to be part of an attempt to preserve some six-power unity. Permanent Security Council members Russia and China have blocked Western attempts at tougher sanctions, so the agreement to drop insistence on an enrichment freeze and meet with Tehran without preconditions seemed gauged to keep Moscow and Beijing on board.
"We have an opportunity here to present a united front – the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany – to show that the international community wants them to abandon their any plans they have for a militarization of their nuclear program," Kelly said.
Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at Stratfor, a U.S.-based global intelligence firm, said those differences pitting Moscow and Beijing against other Security Council members might persist at the talks.
But "if Iran doesn't take talks seriously and miscalculates, then you have possibility of these sanctions moving forward," with Russia and China also in favor, he said.
World powers other than the U.S. reserved comment. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as urging the international community to opt for toughness, not compromise.
"I believe that now is the time to impose harsh sanctions against Iran," he was quoted as saying at a closed meeting of Israel's parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee.
"The Iranian regime is weak," he said, according to an official at the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was divulging Netanyahu's comments. "The Iranian people would not rally around the regime if they felt for the first time that there was a danger to their regime."
Iran continues to say it won't even discuss limiting its nuclear activities. But the U.S. and its partners decided last week to agree to talks with Tehran in hope that broad negotiations would eventually encompass enrichment and related topics.
Israel and the U.S. have warned before that force could be used as a last resort, if Iran continued to defy the Security Council regarding its alleged efforts to build nuclear weapons. At Monday's IAEA conference, Salehi, also an Iranian vice president, told the delegates that his country is ready to defend itself militarily.
"We are ... being continuously threatened with attacks on our nuclear facilities," Salehi said. "Such a vigilant nation, while taking every threat seriously, is in the meantime confident of its capacity to defend itself."
Such a threat "achieves nothing (beyond) ... adding to my great nation's determination and solidarity," he said.
Tehran says it wants to use enrichment technology to create nuclear fuel for electric plants, but there are international fears it seeks to make warheads.
Iran is under three sets of Security Council sanctions – primarily for refusing to mothball its enrichment program. Its stonewalling of an IAEA probe of allegations that it worked on developing nuclear weapons has exacerbated tensions.
Touching on those concerns, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the Vienna meeting of outstanding "questions and allegations that cast doubt on the peaceful nature" of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"If we are to restore confidence in the exclusive peaceful nature of its nuclear program, Iran needs ... to clarify these issues, especially the difficult and important questions" pertaining to its alleged weapons-related experiments, he said.
While welcoming prospects of renewed dialogue with Iran, ElBaradei was indirectly critical of Washington.
Citing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein as an example of needless bloodshed, he urged restraint in using force to resolve disputes.
Noting the Iraq war was justified by claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction – and that no such arms were found – ElBaradei said "if history has taught us anything, it is surely that force rarely solves problems. So we had better stick to diplomacy."
AP writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Ben Feller aboard Air Force One, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.