WASHINGTON -- The United States and five partner countries have accepted Iran's new offer to hold talks, even though Iran insists it will not negotiate over its disputed nuclear program, the State Department said Friday.
Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that although Iran's proposal for international talks -- presented to the six powers on Wednesday -- was disappointing for sidestepping the nuclear issue, it represented a chance to begin a direct dialogue.
"We are seeking a meeting now based on the Iranian paper to see what Iran is prepared to do," Crowley said. "And then, as the president has said, you know, if Iran responds to our interest in a meeting, we'll see when that can occur. We hope that will occur as soon as possible."
In its proposal, Iran ignored a demand by the six world powers -- the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany -- 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 non-military 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."
Crowley said Iran's lack of interest in addressing its nuclear program is not a reason to refuse to talk.
"If we have talks, we will plan to bring up the nuclear issue," he said.
"So we are seeking a meeting because ultimately the only way that we feel we're going to be able to resolve these issues is to have a meeting," Crowley added. "But it's not just a meeting for meeting's sake; it is a meeting to be able to see if Iran is willing to engage us seriously on these issues."
The decision to take up Iran's offer was communicated publicly Friday in Brussels by Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief who is an intermediary for the six powers, who represent the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
"We are all committed to meaningful negotiations with Iran to resolve the international community's concerns about their nuclear program," Solana said in a brief written statement. He said his office was in contact with Iranian officials to arrange a meeting "at the earliest possible opportunity."
Crowley said there is no assumption that new talks with Iran will be productive. But the proposal made Wednesday by the Iranian government indicated at least a new willingness to engage diplomatically, he said.
"There's language in the letter that simply says the government of Iran is willing to enter into dialogue," the spokesman said. "We are going to test that proposition, OK? And if Iran is willing to enter into serious negotiations, then they will find a willing participant in the United States and the other (partner) countries.
"If Iran dissembles in the future, as it has in the past, then we will draw conclusions from that," he said.
Crowley said the administration will, between now and December, assess where it's diplomatic approach stands. Iran's willingness to deal with the nuclear issues in the proposed new talks will be part of that assessment, he said.
Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council, said in a phone interview Friday prior to Solana's announcement that he hoped the Obama administration would take Iran up on its offer.
"The Iranian proposal is an opening bid," Parsi said, even if it contains no offer of compromise on the nuclear issue.
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.