BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — The European Union's foreign policy chief on Friday called for a meeting of world powers with Iran "at the earliest possible opportunity" to discuss Tehran's nuclear intentions, even as the country's supreme leader insisted Iran would not halt its nuclear development program.
A State Department spokesman said later that the U.S. would participate in such a face-to-face meeting because "ultimately, the only way that we feel we're going to be able to resolve these issues is to have a meeting."
The remarks came hours after Iran's top spiritual and political authority said in a Friday prayer sermon that his government would continue its nuclear program despite pressure from Western nations that accuse it of trying to build bombs.
Speaking at Tehran University, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also derided the West, especially Britain, for what he termed interference in Iran's affairs. Iran's nuclear program will come under scrutiny during the United Nations General Assembly and Group of 20 nations meetings this month.
In response to the West's offer of talks over sensitive aspects of its nuclear program, Iran submitted a proposal Wednesday that said it was "prepared to enter into dialogue and negotiation" on a wide variety of topics, including nuclear technology.
But it did not specifically broach the subject of its uranium enrichment program, which the West and Israel allege is the cornerstone of an eventual nuclear weapons program. Instead, Iran, which says its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian energy purposes, expressed readiness to take part in talks about "preventing development and proliferation of nuclear, chemical and [biological] weapons," according to a copy of the document published by the ProPublica news website.
Though some U.S. and European officials had already dismissed the Iranian offer as irrelevant, Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, said he was studying the proposal and urged quick talks.
"It's not just a meeting for meeting's sake," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "It is a meeting to be able to see if Iran is willing to engage seriously on these issues."
Crowley said Iran's proposal "clearly . . . does not reply" to the West's concerns. But, he added, "we wish to have a direct dialogue with Iran. We believe, and the president has said repeatedly, that we feel this is the way in which we will be able to, and hopefully can, resolve these issues."
The West has promised to increase economic sanctions on Iran if it does not halt its enrichment of uranium, and Israeli officials have threatened to attack Iran's nuclear facilities to halt it from developing any nuclear weapons.
Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, for now oppose additional sanctions.
On Friday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told a meeting of political analysts in Moscow that he also opposed military action against Iran, a political analyst at the meeting told the Interfax news agency.
"From the point of view of Putin, Iran is today doing the same that India was doing: developing civilian nuclear components," Ariel Cohen said.
Putin reportedly told the analysts that military action "would carry the threat of an explosion of terrorism, and strikes of this kind could benefit radicals and extremists," Cohen was quoted as saying.
In his sermon before a crowd of Islamic Republic luminaries, Khamenei said Iran would not yield to outsiders.
"Whether in the nuclear or nonnuclear fields, day by day, under international pressure the Islamic Republic of Iran . . . stands fast," he said. "Those who say we have to lay down our guns against enemies are making a mistake."
Khamenei also urged Iranian opposition leaders to obey national laws or face stiff penalties, the latest attempt to divide a movement that continues despite months of arrests and violent reprisals.
Khamenei's speech laid the groundwork for the possible arrest of key opposition leaders if they call for more protests or continue to allege massive vote-rigging in the June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He also set new ground rules in an attempt to divide powerful politicians and clergy who supported opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi from those who continue to vociferously question the election.
Khamenei's remarks came a week before protesters plan to take to the streets during annual Quds Day commemorations in support of the Palestinian cause and against Israel. Khamenei warned protesters not to "manipulate" the holiday, but to show unity in support of Palestinians.
"The system will not take action against anyone as long as they perform within the framework of the system, do not resort to violence, do not disturb the calm in society and do not carry out unlawful actions such as spreading lies and rumors," he said in his first sermon since a June 19 speech triggered a violent crackdown on hundreds of thousands of protesters.
The political crisis over the disputed June election is Iran's worst since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.