The EU resumed talks on a trade accord with Iran yesterday, 18 months after they were suspended due to concerns about Tehran's nuclear plans, the European Commission said.
The technical-level negotiations on a trade and cooperation agreement were restarted after the Islamic state agreed to suspend uranium enrichment in an accord thrashed out following intense pressure, notably from the US.
In parallel with the trade talks, the EU also is to resume political talks this week on key areas of political concern, notably human rights and weapons of mass destruction.
"The resumption ... is a clear signal of our wish to work with Iran," EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said ahead of the Brussels talks.
But while underlining hopes for the talks, she made it clear that the 25-member bloc's relations with Tehran are "an important element of a wider package" which is linked to continuing adherence to commitments it has made.
"Iran can look forward to a richer relationship with the European Union, as long as the international community can be confident that Iran's nuclear programme is not being developed for military purposes," she said.
The Iran-EU trade talks, which were launched in December 2002, were suspended in mid-2003 amid mounting tensions, particularly over Tehran's refusal to allow snap inspections of its nuclear facilities.
The resumption follows the confirmation of Iran's suspension of its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But tension remains notably because Tehran has agreed to maintain the suspension of its uranium enrichment activities only as long as the EU trade talks continue.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is strictly civilian and peaceful and that it is not developing atomic weapons.
But the US wants the IAEA to take Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions for what Washington says is a covert nuclear weapons program.
The EU executive branch un-derlined that the trade talks, which are expected to involve negotiating sessions roughly every two months, are aimed at agreeing a "first generation" trade accord with the Tehran government.
This would not give Iran any preferential access to EU markets, but would confirm its trade relations on the basis of those applying to all other World Trade Organization members, EU officials said.
Iran, whose growth averaged 5.8 percent over the past three years and reached 7.4 percent in 2003, has seen its trade with the EU decline over the 25 years since the mullahs ousted the shah in 1979 but it still amounts to 10 billion euros (US$13 billion), or 30 percent, of Iran's total trade.
The trade talks are to be followed today by the resumption of political talks notably including discussion on four key areas of concern for the EU. These are human rights, regional security in the Middle East, support for terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, officials said.
Officials made it clear that, while there is no direct link between the two trade negotiations and the political talks, problems in key areas of concern could lead to a new suspension of dialogue.