(Adds IAEA chief's comment, paragraphs 11-13)
* "Don't get dragged into dangerous stance", Iran warns
* Message appears directed at Gulf Arab oil exporters
* Iran says discussing talks venue, date with big powers
* U.S., EU deny it, saying Iran must get serious for talks
* Britain: Iran still loath to address atomic bomb concerns
By Ibon Villelabeitia
ANKARA, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Iran's foreign minister
warned Arab neighbours on Thursday not to put themselves in a
"dangerous position" by aligning themselves too closely with the
United States in the escalating dispute over Tehran's nuclear
Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, used for
a third of the world's seaborne oil trade, if pending Western
moves to ban Iranian crude exports cripple its lifeblood energy
sector, fanning fears of a descent into wider Middle East war.
Tehran, which denies suspicions it is seeking nuclear
weapons, was riled earlier this week when Saudi Arabia asserted
it could swiftly raise oil output for key customers if needed, a
scenario that could transpire if Iranian exports were embargoed.
"We want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of
the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries
12,000 miles away from this region," Iranian Foreign Minister
Ali Akbar Salehi said in English during a visit to Turkey.
The remark was an apparent reference to the alliance of
Iran's Arab neighbours with Washington, which maintains a huge
fleet in the Gulf and says it will keep the waterway open.
"I am calling to all countries in the region, please don't
let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position," he told
Turkey's NTV broadcaster.
Salehi added the United States should make clear that it was
open for negotiations with Tehran without conditions. He
referred to a letter Iran says it received from U.S. President
Barack Obama about the situation in the Straight of Hormuz, the
contents of which have not been made public.
"Mr Obama sent a letter to Iranian officials, but America
has to make clear that it has good intentions and should express
that it's ready for talks without conditions," he said.
"Out in the open they show their muscles but behind the
curtains they plead to us to sit down and talk. America has to
pursue a safe and honest strategy so we can get the notion that
America this time is serious and ready."
The United States, like other Western countries, says it is
prepared to talk to Iran but only if Tehran agrees to discuss
halting its enrichment of uranium. Western officials say Iran
has been asking for talks "without conditions" as a stalling
tactic while refusing to put its nuclear programme on the table.
IAEA SAYS MUST WARN WORLD ABOUT IRAN
The International Atomic Energy Agency chief said it was his
duty to warn the world about possible military aspects to Iran's
nuclear energy programme, keeping the heat on Tehran ahead of a
rare visit by senior IAEA officials for talks on Jan. 29-31.
"What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons,"
he was quoted as saying in comments published in the Financial
Times Deutschland on Thursday. "We want to check over everything
that could have a military dimension."
An IAEA delegation, to be headed by Deputy Director General
Herman Nackaerts, is expected to seek explanations for
intelligence information indicating Iran has engaged in research
and development relevant for nuclear weapons.
Tehran denies it is after atom bombs, saying it is refining
uranium only for power generation and medical applications.
With EU foreign ministers preparing to approve a phased ban
on imports of Iranian oil at a meeting on Jan. 23, Salehi said
on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic was in touch with world
powers to reopen talks frozen for a year.
Washington and the EU quickly denied this, saying they are
still waiting for Iran to show it wanted serious negotiations
addressing fears that it trying to master ways to build atom
bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear energy programme.
TARGETING IRANIAN CENTRAL BANK
In addition to an embargo on Iran's economically vital oil
exports, EU diplomats said member governments had agreed in
principle to freeze assets of Iran's central bank, but had yet
to agree how to protect non-oil trade from sanctions.
Iranian politicians said Obama had expressed readiness to
negotiate in a letter to Iran's clerical supreme leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"In this letter it was said that closing the Strait of
Hormuz is our (U.S.) 'red line' and also asked for direct
negotiations," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted
lawmaker Ali Mottahari as saying.
Washington denied there were any new discussions under way
about resuming talks with Iran, but declined to comment on
whether Obama had written to Khamenei.
"There are no current talks about talks," State Department
spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday.
"What we are doing, as we have said, is making clear to the
Iranians that if they are serious about coming back to a
conversation, where they talk openly about their nuclear
programme, and if they are prepared to come clean with the
international community, that we are open to that," she said.
The Islamic Republic has wanted to discuss only broader
international security issues with the powers up to now.
OIL SANCTIONS PENDING
The die was cast for international oil sanctions against
Iran when Obama signed legislation on Dec. 31 that would freeze
out any institution dealing with Iran's central bank, making it
impossible for most countries to buy Iranian oil. Similar
measures are expected from Europe this month.
"On the central bank, things have been moving in the right
direction in the last hours," one EU diplomat said on Wednesday.
"There is now a wide agreement on the principle. Discussions
continue on the details."
An IAEA report in November lent weight to concerns that Iran
has worked on designing a nuclear weapon, and Tehran is shifting
enrichment to an underground bunker in a mountain fortified
against air attack.
Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East's only
nuclear arsenal but sees Iran's nuclear ambitions as a mortal
threat, and the United States have not ruled out military action
as a last resort to prevent an atomic "breakout" by Tehran.
However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on
Wednesday that any decision about an Israeli assault on Iran was
"very far off".
The last talks between Iran and the permanent members of the
U.N. Security Council - the United States, Britain, France,
Russia and China - along with Germany stalled in Istanbul a year
ago, with the parties unable to agree even on an agenda.
The six have also failed to agree on a common line in their
approach to Iran, a lack of unity that resulted in the dilution
of four earlier rounds of sanctions adopted since 2006.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao defended his country's extensive
oil trade with Iran against Western sanctions pressure in
comments published on Thursday. Nevertheless, he said, Beijing
firmly opposes any Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a last-ditch
military option mooted by the United States and Israel would
ignite a disastrous, widespread Middle East war. Russia has also
criticised the new sanctions, calling them counterproductive.
(Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Chris
Buckley in Beijing, Phil Stewart in Washington, Alexei Anishchuk
in Moscow, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Allyn Fisher-Ilan in
Jerusalem and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich;
Editing by Peter Graff)
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