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Published: Thursday May 8, 2014 MYT 8:45:02 AM
Updated: Thursday May 8, 2014 MYT 8:46:43 AM

Iran, six powers hold 'useful' nuclear talks; agreement elusive

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wait for the start of talks in Vienna April 9, 2014.  REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wait for the start of talks in Vienna April 9, 2014. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Iran and six world powers held more "useful" talks on Tehran's nuclear program, the European Union announced on Wednesday, as a Western diplomat said they are still struggling to overcome deep disagreements on the future of Iranian atomic capabilities.

The remarks came after two days of expert-level talks in New York between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia on a long-term accord that would end a decade-old dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions by a self-imposed July 20 deadline.

"(The six powers) and Iranian technical experts had a useful meeting on 6-7 May in New York," an EU spokesman said.

"The talks aimed at further deepening of the knowledge on the issues and to contribute to the preparations for the next round of (senior-level) negotiations on a comprehensive agreement due to take place next week in Vienna," he added.

A spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission said Tehran would shortly issue a similar statement through Iranian media on the New York talks, which were a prelude to next week's negotiations in the Austrian capital.

The West suspects Iran may be seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and intended solely for generating electricity and isotopes usable in cancer treatment.

Iran wants an end to crippling international sanctions, which have damaged its oil-dependent economy by forcing a sharp reduction in crude exports from the Islamic Republic.

A Western diplomat, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran and the six powers have made progress on scenarios for resolving a dispute over Iran's Arak nuclear reactor, which could yield significant quantities of bomb-grade plutonium if it is put on line without major modifications.

"More difficult for getting a deal is uranium enrichment in general and centrifuge R&D (research and development)," the diplomat said.

The issue of uranium enrichment is a problematic one for Washington's principal ally in the Middle East, Israel. Israel insists Iran be denied uranium enrichment capabilities under a potentially imminent nuclear deal, a demand that risks opening a new Israeli-United States rift, Israeli officials say.

But Western diplomats close to the talks say banning all enrichment work in Iran is unrealistic.

The six powers and Iran are attempting to find an acceptable compromise that would enable Tehran to carry on with limited uranium enrichment work that would not give the Iranians the ability to easily produce large stocks of purified uranium, which can be used to produce bombs if enriched to higher levels.

Such limited enrichment work would be closely monitored by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.

Earlier this week Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said senior officials from the countries involved in the talks now plan to start drafting a text of a possible deal.

"As a result of this round, we should at least get some elements of the agreed text and elements of the common text," Ryabkov told state-run RIA news agency in an interview.

Ryabkov did not give details on what areas the partial agreement he expects to come out of next week's talks in Vienna might cover.

Analysts and diplomats say there is political will on both sides to reach an agreement but that it will still be very difficult to overcome key differences, especially on the permissible scope of Iran's uranium enrichment program.

The six powers want a deal that would significantly scale back Iran's nuclear program so that it would not be able to build a bomb any time soon.

After years of an increasingly hostile standoff with the West, last year's election of the pragmatist Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president paved the way for a thaw in relations.

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