Vice President Joe Biden delivers his keynote speech on Saturday in Munich, Germany.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden delivers his keynote speech on Saturday in Munich, Germany.

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NEW: Sen. John McCain cautions against optimism

Vice President Biden says the U.S. is willing to hold direct talks with Iran

But the talks must have an agenda, he says

Iran's foreign minister hopes the U.S. will soften its policies on Iran

Under the right conditions, the United States is willing to hold direct talks with Iran, Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday.

The United States “would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership,” he said during a speech at the Munich Security Conference.

The two nations are at odds, primarily over Iran’s nuclear program, but there is a standing offer for talks.

“There has to be an agenda that they are prepared to speak to,” Biden said. “We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise.”

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in an interview with the semi-official Fars news agency that he hopes incoming U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would work toward softening Washington’s policies toward Iran and that Kerry “would at least rectify part of the U.S. government’s anti-Iranian stance and policies.”

Indirect talks with Iran, through the so-called P5+1 group (the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany), have been unsuccessful and have stalled for months.

The lack of progress in those talks have placed pressure on the Obama administration to rethink its diplomatic approach.

President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, has in the past called for direct talks with Iran. It was a point of contention during his confirmation hearing, with some Republicans accusing him of being too soft on Iran.

Kerry, during his confirmation hearing, said that the current sanctions against Iran are working, but there is hope that progress can be made on the diplomatic front.

Critics of direct talks say the Iranians take advantage of such opportunities to delay sanctions against them while they continue to work on their nuclear program.

The United States and Iran reportedly agreed to hold one-on-one talks last fall, but only after the U.S. presidential election. At the time, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, accused the Iranians of exploiting the U.S. political campaign.

“As we talk with the Iranians, whether it’s bilaterally or unilaterally, they continue to enrich (uranium),” he said in October.

The National Security Council denied at the time that there was any deal for bilateral talks with Iran.

Last month, the United States slapped new sanctions on the Islamic republic, targeting a handful of companies and individuals it says are providing materials and technology to Tehran’s nuclear program.

U.S. outlines Iran’s sanction evading tricks

The sanctions, announced by the U.S. State and Treasury departments, were the latest to target Iran’s economy as well as its ability to develop nuclear material.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is for civilian energy purposes only. But the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency has said it cannot verify whether the intent of the program is for peaceful means.

A number of Western nations have placed economic and arms-related sanctions on Iran since November 2010 when the nuclear watchdog said Tehran was pursuing technology that could be used to build nuclear weapons.

Since then, Iran has been hit by the United States and the European Union with an oil embargo as well as sanctions targeting its banks and number of its businesses.

Speaking at the same security conference in Germany as Biden, U.S. Sen. John McCain said he would not be against direct talks with Iran, but warned against misplaced optimism.

“I think we should learn the lessons of history and that is that no matter what the talks are, if you still have the fundamental problem – and the fundamental problem is Iranians’ commitment to acquisition of a nuclear weapon – it doesn’t matter to a significant degree,” he said.

“We’ve seen this movie before. And obviously, I think any venue we would support, but to have grounds for optimism I think would be a mistake.”