VILNIUS, Lithuania — The European Union and the U.S. are moving closer to resuming international talks with Iran on its disputed nuclear program, buoyed by recent changes in Tehran's leadership, officials said Friday.
"We are ready to come very quickly to talks," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has led negotiations with Iran in recent years over allegations it is seeking to build a nuclear weapons program. `'We really want to move now quickly to resolve this."
President Barack Obama said the election of centrist Hasan Rouhani as Iran's president in June offers "the opportunity to demonstrate in acts and not just words that ... they do not pursue nuclear weapons."
French President Francois Hollande, who was in St. Petersburg with Obama for the Group of 20 summit, said "we want to believe in the statements of the new president" who has sounded more conciliatory than his predecessor.
Rouhani confirmed Thursday that Iran's foreign ministry – led by Javad Zarif, a Western-educated diplomat – will direct nuclear talks with world powers, marking a shift away from the often more hawkish security officials who had previously set the negotiation strategy.
At a meeting of the EU's 28 foreign ministers in Vilnius, Ashton said she called Zarif and agreed to meet with him later this month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
While it is assumed that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will have the last word on the nuclear issue, Rouhani was elected on the promise of getting rid of the international sanctions that are crippling Iran's economy. Analysts view the appointment of the foreign affairs ministry to lead the nuclear negotiations – instead of the Supreme National Security Council – as a sign that the new administration might be more willing to compromise with the West.
Iran denies any interest in nuclear weapons, insisting that both uranium enrichment and nuclear reactors are meant for peaceful purposes, such as production of energy and medical and scientific research. Since 2006, it has shrugged off numerous U.N. Security Council and other international sanctions meant to curb its nuclear activities, as well as incentives offered during international negotiations and aimed at the same goal.
Also Friday, the EU General Court said it would throw out penalties imposed on eight Iranian banks and businesses for their alleged ties to Iran's nuclear program, because there wasn't sufficient evidence to justify the sanctions imposed by the bloc.
The court said the sanctions will stay in place for at least two months pending any appeal. If an appeal is filed by an EU government, the sanctions would remain binding until a ruling.
But the court upheld sanctions on another Iranian bank because it continued to pay scholarships for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. It also upheld sanctions against the Germany-based EIHB, or European-Iranian trade bank, leaving its funds frozen.
Overall though, the United States was disappointed with the ruling.
"The evidence linking these banks to Iran's illicit nuclear activities is clear and strong, and no financial institution anywhere should allow these Iranian banks to transact with them," the U.S. Treasury said in a statement.
At the same time, the U.S. is expanding Iran sanctions to target a network allegedly helping the government evade measures aimed at curbing oil exports.
The Treasury accused Iran on Friday of using front companies, financial institutions and businessmen "willing to engage in deceptive transactions to conceal the direct involvement" of the Tehran government in global oil transactions.
The U.S. says the new sanctions target the network of Seyed Seyyedi, an Iranian businessman and director of Sima General Trading, as well as a network of companies based in the United Arab Emirates that Seyyedi allegedly controls. They also target National Iranian Oil Company representatives in Europe.
The EU is one of Iran's most important trading partners. Since 2010, however, the bloc has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on top of existing U.N. sanctions, targeting Iranian citizens and companies believed to be linked to the country's nuclear program. The EU then significantly escalated the nuclear-related sanctions by 2012 to include an oil-import embargo.
Juergen Baetz reported from Brussels. Angela Charlton contributed to this report from St. Petersburg and Marjorie Olster from Washington.
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