ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey called on Thursday for the immediate resumption of talks between Iran and major world powers and said both sides have expressed willingness to try to end the standoff over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
But France questioned whether Iran is ready for such talks and said the next step appears to be tougher sanctions, including a European Union embargo on Iran's oil exports.
At a joint news conference with Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country is ready to host and "make any other kind of contribution" to talks between Iran and six countries leading such negotiations: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
"What is important is for these negotiations to start immediately and for the tensions to be reduced," Davutoglu said. "It is important that the hurdles in front of the talks are removed."
"I would like to say that the sides have confirmed their willingness," he said. "Today is the day for negotiations and a solution."
Salehi, concluding his two-day visit to Turkey, said the six powers should enter talks without "excuses." He said, "If there are excuses, it is a sign that they oppose and do not approve of the negotiations."
Iranian officials have said they favor Turkey as a venue for further talks with the six powers.
For more than three years, Tehran has blocked International Atomic Energy Agency attempts to follow up on U.S. and other intelligence alleging covert Iranian work on nuclear arms, dismissing the charges as baseless and insisting all its nuclear activities were peaceful and under IAEA purview.
Faced with Iranian stonewalling, the IAEA summarized its body of information in November, in a 13-page document drawing on 1,000 pages of intelligence. It stated then for the first time that some of the alleged experiments can have no other purpose than developing nuclear weapons.
In Paris on Thursday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the European Union has made specific proposals for dialogue with Iran, but "unfortunately the country has not committed in a transparent and cooperative way in this process of talks."
"That's the reason why — in order to avoid what would surely be irreparable, that's to say a military option — we think that we have to harden the sanctions to make the Iranian regime evolve," Juppe said.
Juppe said he hopes EU foreign ministers will reach an accord at a meeting on Monday in Brussels on two areas: an embargo on Iranian petroleum exports and a freeze on the assets of the Iranian Central Bank.
"It's true that there have been talks because some (EU) countries are very dependent in obtaining their oil, but we can find solutions," Juppe said, alluding to some European countries that import Iranian oil. "We, the French government, are doing all that we can so a clear accord on this issue can be reached among all 27."
In Brussels, a diplomat said Thursday that agreement on an EU embargo on Iranian oil remains in doubt, with discussions still under way about issues such as when existing contracts would expire and how such an embargo would affect oil prices, especially in struggling countries such as Greece.
The effort to revive the nuclear talks come as the U.S. and Europe have moved to step up sanctions against Iran.
The U.S. last month enacted new sanctions targeting Iran's central bank and its ability to sell petroleum abroad, though it has delayed implementing the sanctions for at least six months, worried about sending the price of oil higher at a time when the global economy is struggling. Iran has threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in response to sanctions.
The U.S. and its Western allies charge that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran has consistently denied that, saying its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed at producing electric power and isotopes for cancer treatment.
Earlier on Thursday, Salehi repeated a claim that President Barack Obama had called for direct talks with Iran in a secret letter to the Islamic Republic's supreme leader that also warned Tehran against closing the Strait of Hormuz.
"They are flexing their muscle (in public), but they are also secretly saying: 'Come talk with us,'" Salehi told Turkey's NTV television in an interview, which was aired with a voice-over Turkish translation. "The U.S. government should act in an open and honest way."
Obama administration officials denied there was such a letter.
Speaking at a news conference with Juppe in Paris, Australia's foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, urged China and other Asian countries to take "due note" of international efforts to tighten sanctions against Iran.
"But for those countries which continue to import, we would urge them to be mindful of the actions of others in the international community who are seeking to bring about the pressure necessary to get a change in the Iranian government's positions," Rudd said. "I would urge our friends in Beijing, but elsewhere as well in Asia, to reflect seriously upon this."
China, the world's biggest energy consumer, remains unwilling to back an oil embargo against Iran. South Korea also has remained noncommittal.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed.