TEHRAN, Iran — Iran is ready to revive talks with the U.S. and other world powers, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday, but suggested that Tehran's foes will have to make compromises to prevent negotiations from again collapsing in stalemate.
Iran's insistence that it will never give up uranium enrichment – the process that makes material for reactors as well as weapons – scuttled negotiations a year ago and still looms as a potential deal breaker even as tougher Western sanctions target Iran's critical oil exports.
Ahmadinejad added his voice to proposals by Iranian officials to return to talks Thursday at a rally in the southeastern city of Kerman, saying a nation that is in the "right" should not be worried about holding dialogue.
Iran indicated earlier this week that it was ready for a new round of talks with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. Ahmadinejad – the highest-ranking official so far to make the offer – gave no further details about a potential timetable or venue.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had welcomed the proposals to restart talks – possibly in Turkey – but urged Tehran to bring "some concrete issues to talk about."
"It is very important that it is not just about words. A meeting is not an excuse, a meeting is an opportunity and I hope that they will seize it," she said Monday in Brussels as the 27-nation bloc adopted its toughest measures yet on Iran with an oil embargo and freeze of the country's central bank assets.
That followed U.S. action also aimed at limiting Iran's ability to sell oil, which accounts for 80 percent of its foreign revenue.
In the past, Iran has angered Western officials by appearing to buy time through opening talks and weighing proposals even while pressing ahead with its nuclear program.
Britain's Foreign Office said that the six world powers were awaiting a response to a letter sent to Tehran by Ashton in October.
"The door is open, if Iran is willing to talk about its nuclear program in a serious and meaningful manner, without preconditions. The ball is in Iran's court," a spokesman for the ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with policy.
The United States and its allies want Iran to halt uranium enrichment, which they worry could eventually lead to weapons-grade material and the production of nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes – generating electricity and producing medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.
Negotiations between Iran and the international envoys fell apart in January 2011, and Iran later rejected a plan to send its stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for reactor-ready fuel rods.
Ahmadinejad tried to turn the tables, accusing the West of claiming to seek talks but preferring failure as a way to further punish Iran with what the Islamic Republic has called "economic warfare."
"It is you who come up with excuses each time and issue resolutions on the verge of talks so that negotiations collapse," Ahmadinejad said. "It is evident that those who resort to coercion are opposed to talks and always bring pretexts and blame us instead."
A U.N. nuclear agency team is expected to visit Tehran on Saturday, the first such mission since a report in November that alleged Iran had conducted secret weapons-related tests and that Tehran was on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon.
The delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency will be led by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, who is in charge of the Iran nuclear file.
Iran began uranium enrichment at a new underground site built to withstand possible airstrikes earlier this month, in another show of defiance against Western pressure.
Centrifuges at the bunker-like Fordo facility near the holy city of Qom are churning out uranium enriched to 20 percent. That level is higher than the 3.5 percent being made at Iran's main enrichment plant at Natanz, central Iran, and can be turned into warhead material faster and with less work.
Iran says it won't give up its right to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel, but it has offered to allow IAEA inspectors to visit its nuclear sites to ensure that the program won't be weaponized.
Ahmadinejad also claimed the sanctions and oil embargo will backfire because it has minimum trade with the EU.
"Americans have not purchased Iranian oil for 30 years. Our central bank has had no dealings with them ... our (total) foreign trade is about $200 billion. Between $23 billion to $24 billion of our trade is with Europeans, making up about 10 percent of our total trade ... Iran won't suffer," Ahmadinejad said in comments posted on state TV's website.
The EU had been importing about 450,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran, making up 18 percent of Iran's oil exports.
In China, a major buyer of Iranian oil, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted the Foreign Ministry as opposing the latest EU measures on Iran.
"To blindly pressure and impose sanctions on Iran are not constructive approaches," the statement said.
Beijing has pressed for the nuclear standoff to be resolved through dialogue and consultation.
Oil prices – which rose about $100 a barrel Thursday – have been nudged higher this week on Western naval buildups in the Gulf and Iran's threats to close the oil tanker lanes through the Strait of Hormuz, the route for about one-fifth the world's crude.
On Iran's southern coast, a fighter jet crashed after a technical malfunction, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported. The U.S.-made F-14 went down outside Bushehr, a port city that is also the site of Iran's first nuclear power plant. Iran has an aging warplane fleet that includes many American-made aircraft, including F-14s, purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Meanwhile, a 22-year-old Afghan man has been sentenced to 16 years in prison for spying on his country for neighboring Iran, an Afghan official in Herat said Thursday. The two countries have significant cultural and economic ties, and Iran maintains a consulate in the western city.
Photographs of foreign and Afghan military installations and notebooks containing the phone numbers of Iranian intelligence officials were seized when Mahmood, who uses only one name, was arrested four months ago in his native Herat, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive case.
Mahmood, who shouted his innocence during an hour-long trial Tuesday in Herat, has said that he plans to appeal his sentence to a higher court, the official said.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.