Six powers ready for direct nuclear talks with Iran

VIENNA (AFP) - The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany said Tuesday in a rare joint statement that they were ready for direct talks with Iran to resolve a long-running nuclear standoff.

"We remain firmly committed to a comprehensive diplomatic solution, including through direct dialogue," the so-called P5+1 nations said in a joint statement read to a closed-door meeting of the IAEA board of governors.

The countries -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States -- called on "Iran to take this opportunity for engagement with us and thereby maximise opportunities for a negotiated way forward."

The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member board of governors, meeting all this week, began its debate on Iran's disputed nuclear programme on Tuesday afternoon.

It was the first time in years that the P5+1 has issued a joint statement at a meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog.

A day earlier, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei criticised Tehran for not cooperating in the watchdog's probe, but expressed hope that a possible change in US policy towards Iran could help break the deadlock.

Even after a six-year probe, the IAEA has failed to definitively say that Iran's controversial nuclear programme is entirely peaceful, as Tehran claims.

ElBaradei complained that Iran was stonewalling key questions on the possible military dimension of past nuclear work and defying UN orders to stop uranium enrichment, a process that can be used not only to make nuclear fuel, but also the fissile material for a bomb.

The P5+1 countries urged Iran "to meet without delay the requirements of the IAEA board of governors and to implement the resolutions of the UN Security Council."

They noted ElBaradei's "serious concern ... about the continued lack of progress.

"In this regard, we call on Iran to cooperate fully with IAEA by providing the agency such access and information that it requests to resolve these issues," the statement said.

Since assuming office in January, US President Barack Obama has signalled his willingness to engage with Iran directly -- a significant shift in policy from that of his predecessor George W. Bush.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first visit to the Middle East as America's top diplomat, reiterated Washington's position.

"As President (Barack) Obama says, we are willing to extend a hand if the other side unclenches its fist in order to have some process of engagement," she told a news conference after a donors' meeting on Gaza in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"But it will only be done in close consultation with our friends," she added.