Geneva – Members of the World Trade Organization agreed Thursday to allow Iran to open negotiations to join the body that governs international commerce, trade officials said.
The U.S., which repeatedly had blocked Iran's long-held desire to join the WTO, raised no objections, the officials said. The WTO takes such decisions by consensus.
The agreement came a day after Iran signaled a willingness to continue its suspension of sensitive nuclear activities until late July, averting an immediate showdown with European leaders.
Iran first applied to join the WTO in 1996, but the U.S. blocked its application 22 times.
"This is an historical decision," said Ujal Singh Bhatia, India's ambassador to the WTO. "The principle of universality has been strengthened. We look forward to working with Iran for its accession."
WTO membership is one of the rewards European Union negotiations have been offering Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program to ensure that it produces only electricity and not weapons. The U.S. said in March it would drop its veto on a start to Iran's accession negotiations.
U.S. officials in Geneva declined to comment on the decision made by the WTO's governing General Council.
For five years, Iran's application was never even discussed because of U.S. objections. Since 2001, the application has been on the agenda of each of the WTO's quarterly General Council meetings, but on every occasion until now it was blocked by the U.S.
The council immediately created a working party for Iran's accession, officials said. A separate group was also created for Sao Tome and Principe, a country off the western coast of Africa.
As a result of the decision Thursday, Iran now has observer status and can sit in all meetings of the WTO.
Some 30 countries -- including Iraq, Russia and Saudi Arabia -- now are involved in accession negotiations, a process that can take years. One country -- Syria -- still has a request pending for accession talks.
Iran's decision to continue its suspension of nuclear activities was greeted with relief by European officials who have been working hard to maintain U.S. backing while trying to woo the Iranians into abandoning their nuclear ambitions.
But Wednesday's deal still may be only a temporary fix. At a meeting in Geneva with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, Iranian negotiators provisionally agreed to hold off until late July, when the Europeans are to provide a detailed list of incentives they will offer in exchange for Tehran abandoning efforts to produce nuclear fuel that can be used for power plants or, potentially, a nuclear weapon.
Iran's chief negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, said he needed "to consult in Tehran" before making a final decision on continuing the negotiations and the suspension. Even the temporary deal could unravel if hard-liners in Tehran decide to overrule the negotiating team.
The Iranians have said repeatedly in recent weeks that they were ready to resume production of the uranium gas, while the Europeans have warned they would face a swift referral to United Nations Security Council if they broke the suspension.
European negotiators were eager to get past Iran's June presidential election, hoping that a new president might have more power to compromise.
The European proposals have focused on how to guarantee Iran a secure supply of nuclear-reactor fuel and on deepening its trading relationship with the European Union. The Europeans also have said they would look into helping Iran acquire a more proliferation-resistant light-water research reactor to replace a heavy-water reactor under construction in the town of Arak. On the political side, the Europeans have talked about "security assurances" and deepening diplomatic contacts.
What the Europeans have demanded are "objective guarantees" that Iran isn't pursuing nuclear weapons. The only way to ensure that, they say, is a complete cessation of all activities related to nuclear fuel. Iran insists it will never abandon its right to produce nuclear fuel for what it says is a peaceful energy program.
U.S. officials want even more: the complete dismantling of Iran's fuel complex, including a massive uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz with room for 50,000 centrifuges that could produce enough low-enriched fuel annually to feed Iran's Bushehr power plant or enough highly enriched uranium for 25 to 30 bombs a year.