WTO OKs Iran to Begin Membership Talks

Members of the World Trade Organization (search) agreed Thursday to allow Iran (search) to open negotiations to join the body that governs international commerce, after the United States lifted its opposition to Iran's membership, trade officials said.

Washington, which repeatedly had blocked Iran's long-held desire to join the WTO, raised no objections this time, the officials said.

The WTO's action came a day after Iranian nuclear negotiators renewed Tehran's vow to refrain from developing atomic weapons and promised European diplomats to continue a moratorium on uranium enrichment activities.

"Today this house with this decision has done service to itself by correcting a wrong," said Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Reza Alborzi.

"We have a forward-looking approach to our accession process," Alborzi added. "Iran has substantive and extensive trade relations with nearly all states present here."

Iran first applied to join the WTO in 1996, but the U.S., accusing Tehran of supporting international terrorism, blocked its application 22 times. The United States said in March it would drop its veto on a start to Iran's accession negotiations.

WTO membership is also one of the rewards European Union (search) negotiators have been offering Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program to ensure that it produces only electricity and not weapons.

The WTO decision came a day after British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) and other key European ministers met with Iranian negotiators in Geneva for talks that were seen as a success.

After the meeting, Straw said Iran had "reaffirmed its commitment not to seek to develop nuclear weapons. The freeze of the enrichment program will continue until an agreement is reached."

Iran also agreed to more talks this summer and Hasan Rowhani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, said, "We believe following the discussions today we could come to a final agreement within a reasonably short time."

U.S. officials in Geneva declined to comment on the decision made by the WTO's governing General Council.

Joseph Akerman, a member of the Israeli delegation, said, "If the working party's objective is to bring the standards of Iran to the world standards of trade," then Israel has no objections to Iran's accession.

"If Iran fulfills those basic principles then they are welcome in the WTO like every other member," Akerman added.

For five years, Iran's application was never even discussed because of U.S. objections. Since 2001, the application has been on the agenda of each of the WTO's quarterly General Council meetings, but on every occasion until now it was blocked.

The council immediately created a working group for Iran's accession, officials said. As a result of Thursday's decision, Iran now has observer status and can sit in all meetings of the WTO.

Some 30 countries — including Iraq, Russia and Saudi Arabia — now are involved in accession negotiations, a process that can take years. One country — Syria — still has a request pending for accession talks.