by Michael Thurston
BRUSSELS - The EU said Tuesday it will resume trade talks with Iran this week after Tehran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, but the bloc vowed to keep up pressure in areas of concern including the Islamic state's nuclear plans.
Talks on a trade and cooperation agreement, suspended 18 months ago, will resume Wednesday, but in parallel EU negotiators will restart political talks on key issues including human rights and weapons of mass destruction.
"The resumption ... is a clear signal of our wish to work with Iran," said EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
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 notably 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.
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 United States 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 commission underlined 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 (WTO) members, EU officials said.
They underline that trade links with Europe are important for Iran: the EU represents 30 percent of its trade with the rest of the world, and 40 percent of its imports.
The trade talks will start Wednesday, and will be followed Thursday 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 (WMD), officials said.
And 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.
This could include any review of the IAEA's position. "If there was a substantial change in the assessment of the IAEA, we would have to consider what the implications would be for the negotiations," said one official.
The EU is also not forecasting how long the talks on a trade accord will last, saying it is an "open-ended process." "It will take as long as it takes to get a good agreement," said the official.
"But it is not a good idea to set artificial timelines," he added.