VIENNA The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Tuesday it would seek in talks in Iran this week to bridge differences that have prevented it restarting an investigation into the Islamic state's atomic activities.
The agency has been trying for more than a year to revive its inquiry into suspected nuclear weapons research by Iran, which denies Western allegations that it is seeking to develop the capability to make atomic bombs.
"Differences remain ... we will work hard to try to resolve these differences," Herman Nackaerts, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said at Vienna airport as he and his team of senior IAEA officials were departing for the Iranian capital for Wednesday's meeting.
World powers will watch the IAEA-Iran talks for signs that Tehran may finally be ready to start addressing their concerns over its nuclear program, which Tehran says is peaceful but the West fears is aimed at developing weapons.
On February 26, Iran and the six big powers are due, after a break of eight months to resume separate, broader negotiations in Kazakhstan aimed at finding a diplomatic settlement to the decade-old dispute and avert the threat of a new war in the Middle East.
The stakes are high: Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, has strongly hinted that it might take military action to prevent its foe acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
The six powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - want Iran to curb uranium enrichment and cooperate fully with the IAEA investigation. Iran wants them to recognize what it sees as its right to refine uranium for peaceful purposes, and an easing of sanctions, which are hurting its oil-dependent economy.
IRAN NUCLEAR OFFICIAL CRITICISES IAEA
A series of meetings between Iran and the IAEA since January 2012 have failed to produce a framework deal giving U.N. inspectors the access to sites, officials and documents that they say they need.
Western diplomats, who often accuse Iran of stonewalling the IAEA, said they did not expect a breakthrough this week. "We're sort of looking at it as another unproductive meeting," one Western envoy told Reuters.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Iran was ready to come to a "comprehensive agreement" on inspections with the IAEA if its nuclear rights were recognized. Part of this agreement could include a visit to the Parchin military facility, he said.
A visit to Parchin, where the IAEA suspects Iran may have carried out explosives tests relevant for nuclear weapons development, is the IAEA's most urgent priority.
Iran says the site is a conventional military one and has dismissed Western accusations of "sanitization" to remove any traces of illicit nuclear-related work there.
Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, signaled continued mistrust between the agency and Tehran by criticizing its handling of documents related to Iran.
The United States late last year set a March deadline for Iran to start cooperating in substance with the IAEA's investigation, warning Tehran that it might otherwise be referred to the U.N. Security Council.
Iran was first reported to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program by the IAEA's 35-nation board in 2006, and was then punished with U.N. sanctions.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)