WASHINGTON, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- With effects of looming international sanctions rocking its economy, Iran has indicated willingness to resume talks with world powers, who want to talk about Tehran's nuclear program.
Tehran would have "new initiatives" to present, said Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator, but it's unclear whether the heart of the dispute between Iran and the West would be on Iran's list of talking points -- enrichment of nuclear fuel and suspicions it is being done in the pursuit of nuclear weapons development.
Iran has repeatedly said it won't bow to international pressure to end nuclear development no matter what actions other countries may take, or submit to stringent and thorough inspection of its facilities and processes by the International Atomic Energy Agency as demanded in U.N. resolutions.
Tehran has consistently said its nuclear program has only peaceful aims.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe this week called Jalili's statement -- contained in a letter to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton -- "ambiguous." Nevertheless, he said it could represent a possible opening for a resumption of discussions that stalled in January 2010.
Germany, France and Britain are studying the letter, which came amid Iranian claims of new enrichment progress, terrorist attacks against Israeli officials blamed on Tehran, growing fear of a pre-emptive military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel, and continuing tension over the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and Iran's threats to forcibly block it.
At the very least, the expressed willingness to meet with Western powers is a new twist in the Iran crisis.
Is the offer legitimate? Would nuclear enrichment be on the agenda? Is it merely a ploy by Tehran to buy time?
On July 1, EU countries are to end the import of Iranian oil despite damage to their own economies.
New U.S. sanctions would also be in force. The U.S. sanctions would be particularly crippling. They would bar any financial institution in the world that conducts business with Iran from doing business with U.S. financial institutions, thus blocking Iran's ability to receive payment for their oil exports, which accounts for about 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
A cut in that revenue means a lack of funds for essential goods and services and would portend civil unrest.
News reports indicate that looming enforcement of sanctions is affecting Iran. Inflation is said to be 20 percent a month, the value of the Iranian currency has plummeted. With customers unable to monetarily reimburse Tehran for the oil bought, Iran may have to resort to bartering for commodities and other goods.
India, a major buyer of Iranian crude, has reportedly announced it will pay Tehran in gold for its imports, Forbes magazine said.
India, China, Japan and South Korea are major customers for the 2.6 million barrels of crude Tehran exports each day.
Since that oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz on tankers, Iran is unlikely to block the waterway -- a bit more than 20 miles wide at its narrowest -- as it has threatened. But with U.S. and international naval forces in the Persian Gulf to ensure the free flow of tanker traffic, an accidental clash with Iran's naval forces isn't beyond the realm of possibility.
Nor is an Iranian attempt to close it in retaliation for an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.
Israel, which Iran constantly threatens to destroy, warns that Iran will soon relocate most of its nuclear facilities to underground locations, such as mountains, virtually impervious to airstrikes and action sooner rather than later is needed.
Sanctions "are not working," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during a brief visit to Cyprus this week.
At present, Iran has more than 8,000 centrifuges for nuclear fuel enrichment. Since 2010, enrichment of uranium has been at the 20 percent level, a jump from the 3.5 percent level that would be adequate for generating nuclear power plants for energy.
An enrichment level of 90 percent is needed for nuclear weapons.
And although Tehran says it is willing to talks with Western powers, it nevertheless touted this week its development of a new and faster line of centrifuge and domestically produced fuel rods to ensure supply of the rods once its stock of imported ones is depleted.
Analysts say the claims could well be exaggerated but the claims underline Tehran's determination to continue nuclear development.