Paris: France voiced skepticism on Wednesday that planned fresh talks between six world powers and Iran would succeed since Tehran still did not seem sincerely willing to negotiate on the future of its controversial nuclear program.
The EU`s foreign policy chief, who represents the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in dealings with Iran, said on Tuesday they had accepted Iran`s offer to return to talks after a standstill of a year that has seen a drift towards conflict in the oil-rich Gulf.
The talks could dampen what U.S. President Barack Obama has called a rising drumbeat of war, alluding to talk of pre-emptive military action by Iran`s arch-foe Israel that many worry would inflame the wider Middle East and batter the global economy.
"I am a little skeptical ... I think Iran continues to be two-faced," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told i-Tele television.
"That`s why I think we have to continue to be extremely firm on sanctions (already imposed on Iran), which in my view are the best way to prevent a military option that would have unforeseeable consequences."
Iran has pledged to float "new initiatives" at the talks, whose venue and date must be decided, but has not committed itself explicitly to discussing ways of guaranteeing that its nuclear advances will be solely peaceful, as the West demands.
Iran denies suspicions that its uranium enrichment work is ultimately meant to yield atomic bombs, saying it is for peaceful energy purposes only. But UN nuclear inspectors cite intelligence pointing to military dimensions to the program.
Western states are likely to tread cautiously in talks, mindful of past accusations that Iran`s willingness to meet has been a tactic to blunt pressure and buy time to amass enriched uranium, rather than a good-faith effort to reach agreement.
The Islamic Republic made its diplomatic approach to the six powers at a time when it suffering unprecedented economic pain from sanctions expanded to batter its oil and financial sectors.
Israel is all but convinced that sanctions and diplomacy will not get Iran to rein in its nuclear drive and is speaking more stridently of resorting to military action.
Israel Welcomes Talks
The Jewish state on Wednesday cautiously welcomed the planned resumption of big power discussions with Iran while insisting that any agreement must ensure Tehran does not develop the means to "weaponize" enrichment.
"There will be no one happier than us, and the Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) said this in his own voice, if it emerges that in these talks Iran will give up on its military nuclear capability," the premier`s national security adviser Yaakov Amidror told Israel Radio.
Netanyahu has said Iran must dismantle an underground enrichment facility near the city of Qom that experts say is designed to survive any air strikes, part of what Israel says is a "zone of immunity" being sought by Tehran.
Fears of war over the matter have driven up oil prices.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first among leaders of the six powers to push for tighter sanctions on Iranian oil and finance. Sarkozy said in January that time was running out for efforts to avoid military intervention in Iran.
But Juppe signaled France was wary of resorting to force. "There is still a debate in Israel (about military action) and it`s our responsibility to bring to Israel`s attention the unforeseeable consequences it would have," he said.
Obama said on Tuesday the new talks with Iran offered a diplomatic chance to defuse the crisis and quiet the "drums of war," although his defense chief said Washington would resort to military action to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons if diplomacy proved futile.
In Vienna, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency adjourned its week-long meeting until Thursday to give the six big powers more time to agree on a joint statement on Iran, diplomats said.
Western diplomats insisted the time needed for further talks did not reflect major differences, but was more a question of consulting capitals of the six powers - the United States, France, Germany, China, Britain and Russia.
It is nothing that "we can`t resolve," one envoy said.
The joint statement by the six powers was expected to underline the importance of their upcoming talks with Iran, and also urge Tehran to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog, after two rounds of largely fruitless meetings between the IAEA and Tehran this year, one diplomat said.
The United States and its Western allies had hoped the board would have agreed a resolution rebuking Iran for what they see as its failure to address the IAEA`s concerns about possible military dimensions to the Islamic state`s nuclear program, but Russia and China objected to this, diplomats said.