UN team begins nuclear talks in Iran

TEHERAN (AFP) - Experts from the United Nation's (UN) nuclear watchdog agency held talks in Teheran on Wednesday to seek a way forward in resolving perennial concerns over Iran's nuclear programme, media reports said.

A team led by the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) chief inspector Herman Nackaerts and one headed by Teheran's IAEA representative Ali Ashghar Soltanieh kicked off talks to "find a solution to concerns and questions raised by the IAEA," the ISNA news agency reported.

ISNA later said that, after "technical discussions", the two sides had agreed to meet again on Thursday.

On Tuesday, before flying out from the agency's base in Vienna, Nackaerts had called on Iran to be "constructive". He also repeated "hope" that Iran would grant access to Parchin, a military base near Teheran where the agency's experts suspect Iran could have carried out experiments with explosives capable of triggering a nuclear weapon.

"Throughout this process, the director general has always said that we are approaching these talks in a constructive spirit," he told reporters.

"Also this time we are approaching it in the same spirit, and we trust that Iran will work with us in the same spirit," he added.

But the IAEA's hopes of reaching a deal are not high.

IAEA head Yukiya Amano said on Friday that he was "not necessarily optimistic", while a Western diplomat told AFP on Sunday "there still remain some pretty big disagreements" with Teheran.

The IAEA, on a visit in mid-December, failed to reach a final agreement for a "structured approach" for Iran to address what it calls "overall, credible" evidence of nuclear weapons research having been carried out until 2003 - and possibly since then.

Iran vehemently denies having ever sought an atomic bomb.

On Tuesday, the foreign ministry spokesman said the government hoped to conclude a comprehensive agreement with the IAEA on Wednesday.

But Mr Ramin Mehmanparast said that would only be possible if the agency recognised Iran's "nuclear rights", while playing down the chances that the IAEA team might get access to Parchin.

"Parchin has no connection with Iran's nuclear activities," Mr Mehmanparast said. Access to it could be discussed, but only in the context of a possible agreement, he added.

The IAEA has pointed to new information uncovered since its last visits to the site in 2005.

They include satellite evidence that the earth has been scraped and removed over a 25 ha area, leading to Western accusations that Iran is destroying evidence.

Wednesday's talks will be closely monitored by the so-called P5+1 group - Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany. Their parallel negotiations with Teheran over the nuclear programme are currently stalled.

At their last meeting, held in Moscow in June, Teheran rejected P5+1 calls for it to scale back its nuclear enrichment activities, while asking for substantial sanctions relief.

On Tuesday, top Iranian lawmaker Aladin Borujerdi repeated Teheran's demands, ISNA reported.

"The main focus of the next talks with the P5+1 should be on lifting the sanctions imposed by the United States (US) and the European Union," said Borujerdi, who heads parliament's influential foreign policy committee.

Iran's economy is struggling to cope with punitive measures adopted by the US and the EU targeting its vital oil income and access to global financial systems.

In a speech to parliament on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran must fundamentally tailor its economy to overcome sanctions because Teheran's current approach is a losing strategy.

He explained that one of the main solutions would be to "ultimately decide to once and for all cut the government's dependence on oil revenues".

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