The State Department said Wednesday the United States is "fully prepared" to take part along with other major powers in new talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Iran this week expressed renewed interest in discussing a proposed trade of its low-enriched uranium for foreign fuel for a Tehran research reactor.
Officials here say Iran's stepped-up enrichment activity in recent months has somewhat reduced the importance of the uranium-swap proposed last October.
But they say they are none-the-less ready to take part in a dialogue with Tehran on the reactor proposal and broader international concerns about its nuclear intentions.
Iran sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency this week proposing to re-start talks on an exchange of nuclear fuel, reaffirming an offer raised earlier this month with European Union chief diplomat Catherine Ashton.
Last October the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany, the P5+1, proposed that Iran send 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for a much smaller amount of highly-enriched fuel for a medical reactor.
At the time, the 1,200 kilograms represented about half of Iran's uranium stockpile. Its current inventory is now much larger.
But State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States remains ready to join in a dialogue process, that would address the proposed swap and broader issues.
"We have clearly indicated to Iran on a number of occasions our willingess to engage along with other members of the P5+1 to address the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program," said Crowley. "There have been contacts between Iran and High Representative Catherine Ashton about a prospective meeting. I've got nothing to announce here. But obviously we are fully prepared to follow up with Iran on specifics regarding our initial proposal involving the Tehran research reactor."
The United States and key allies believe Iran's enrichment program is weapons-related despite its professions of peaceful intent.
Crowley expressed hope the contacts with Iran can yield, in the coming weeks, a meeting similar to that held last October when senior big-power diplomats including U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns met Iranian nuclear negotiator Said Jalili.
On another issue, Crowley reaffirmed the U.S. call on Iran for the release of three American hikers arrested by Iran after straying into Iranian territory from northern Iraq a year ago.
With what he termed the "tragic" anniversary of the three American's capture approaching on Saturday, the spokesman again rejected Iranian suggestions they were spying and said Iran should free them now on humanitarian grounds.
"Iran considers itself a great country, considers itself a civilized country, it wants to have the respect of the international community and the United States," he said. "But respect is earned. And if Iran wants our respect, then sending these three young people home would be an important step in that direction."
The Americans, Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, are being held in a Tehran jail though no formal charges have been filed against them. Iran allowed the mothers of the three detainees to visit them in prison in May.