Iran, world powers bicker over nuke talks venue

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves prior to entering an airplane leaving Iran for Tajikistan at Tehran's Mehrabad airport March 24, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images

(AP) VIENNA - Iran and six world powers have agreed to meet on April 13 for new talks about Tehran's nuclear program, but the failure of previous meetings and disputes over what should be discussed are keeping them from choosing a venue, diplomats told The Associated Press on Monday.

No formal announcement about a date and venue for the talks has been made, and Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, insisted in Brussels that even the date is not yet fixed.

But three diplomats from Western nations accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency said the starting date is set and they expect the dispute over the venue to be resolved in time.

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The bickering between Iran and the world powers over the location after days of talks appeared to reflect the deep differences that have doomed previous meetings during which Iran has refused to even discuss international demands that it curb nuclear activities that could be used as part of a weapons program.

The main stumbling block remains uranium enrichment.

Iran says the expansion of its enrichment program is meant only to provide nuclear fuel, denies any interest in developing the atomic bomb, and says the right of countries to enrich nuclear power is enshrined in the Nonproliferation Treaty.

But the U.S. and others say Iran's nuclear record is causing concern. Tehran started enriching in secret, has refused offers of nuclear fuel shipments from abroad, and last year began enriching to higher levels that bring it closer to point where it could turn its program into producing fissile warhead material at an underground bunker that could be impervious to attack from the air.

The IAEA also has warned of growing suspicions, based on intelligence from the United States, Israel and elsewhere, that the Islamic Republic has hidden research and development on how to make and deliver a nuclear warhead — allegations that Tehran strenuously denies.

The U.S. and its Western allies have agreed on a series of punishing sanctions in recent weeks designed to add weight to U.N. penalties on Iran because of its enrichment program, while attempting to persuade Israel that there is currently no need to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

At a nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea, President Obama urged Iran on Monday to heed U.N. Security Council demands on an enrichment freeze.

"Iran's leaders must understand that there is no escaping the choice before it," Mr. Obama said. "Iran must act with the seriousness and sense of urgency that this moment demands."

Regarding the location of the April 13 talks, Iran favors Istanbul, but since the last talks there failed the six powers oppose that venue, the three diplomats said on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing the confidential discussions about the meeting.

Iran and the six nations — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — met in Istanbul 14 months ago and left the negotiating table two days later unable even agree on what to talk about.

Tehran arrived saying it would not even consider freezing uranium enrichment and kept repeating that mantra. It also pushed two demands unacceptable to the six: a lifting of sanctions and acceptance of its enrichment program before any further discussion of its nuclear activities.

Another possible venue — Vienna — is opposed by Iran because it is the home of the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear monitor overseeing Tehran's nuclear activities and trying to investigate suspicions that it has hidden activities linked to a weapons program, the diplomats said. That could indicate that Iran will again reject any attempts to focus on its nuclear program during the April 13 talks.

Iranian diplomats in Vienna did not immediately answer messages left on their cell phones for comment.

The diplomats said both sides were not keen about Geneva, the site of a failed 2010 meeting. One said Belgium was being discussed. Another suggested that outside of Vienna and Geneva, other Austrian and Swiss venues were still open.