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Iranian nuclear talks face further delay

By Adrian Croft

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The next talks between six global powers and Iran on its nuclear program are likely to be delayed until February, a diplomat said on Friday, after European officials accused Tehran of stalling on fixing a time and place for a meeting.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is coordinating efforts by the powers to persuade Iran to scale back nuclear activity that the West suspects is aimed at developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

The long standoff over Tehran's nuclear program has fuelled concerns Israel could attack Iran's nuclear installations and thereby unleash a broader Middle East war.

Nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain has been deadlocked since a meeting in June last year that ended without a breakthrough.

Talks had been expected to resume soon after last November's re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama, possibly in December or January.

EU diplomats and Iranian officials have held intensive discussions on arranging a new round. But EU officials say Iran has been dragging its feet on fixing a date and location.

"It seems more likely now that the next round will take place in February," a European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. "There is still no agreement on the next round, but contacts are ongoing."

The diplomat voiced disappointment that there was still no agreement on a meeting. "We showed flexibility when it came to date and venue. We want to present our refreshed offer (to Iran) but didn't get the opportunity to do so," the diplomat said.

At talks in Baghdad last May, the six powers put forward a proposal aimed at stopping Iran's production of higher-grade enriched uranium in return for supplying Iran with fuel for a reactor. The diplomat gave no details of the "refreshed" offer.

Tehran rejects allegations of nuclear weapons designs, saying its enrichment work is for medical and energy purposes.

DIPLOMACY AND SANCTIONS

The six powers have used a mixture of diplomacy and economic sanctions for years to force Iran to comply with United Nations' demands that it suspend all activities related to production of enriched uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons.

The Iranian Students' News Agency reported this month that talks might resume on January 28 and 29 and Tehran had suggested Cairo as the venue, but the EU said there was no agreement.

The Chinese New Year holiday in early February could complicate China's participation in talks then, possibly pushing back the talks further next month.

Separate but closely linked talks are being held between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow the U.N. agency to resume a long-stalled investigation into suspected nuclear bomb research in Iran.

The IAEA signaled on Friday it would keep trying to secure Iran's cooperation with its investigation, but a senior Iranian lawmaker suggested Tehran would only cooperate if it won sanctions relief in return.

The comments by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who chairs parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, add to Western suspicions that Iran may be using its talks with the U.N. agency as a bargaining chip to win concessions from the world powers.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl, Zahra Hosseinian, Ethan Bilby)

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