BRUSSELS Iran is stalling on fixing a date and location for a new round of talks on its nuclear program, the European Union's foreign policy chief said on Wednesday, but there is still hope that talks between Tehran and six world powers can begin soon.
EU officials have been in contact with Iranian negotiators repeatedly since December to try to prepare a new set of talks, which the West hopes will lead to Iran scaling back its atomic work. No plans have yet been fixed.
"We proposed concrete dates and a venue in December," said a spokesman for Catherine Ashton, who oversees contacts with Iran on behalf of United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, often referred to as the six world powers.
"Since then, we have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses," spokesman Michael Mann said.
The six powers have used a mix of diplomacy and economic sanctions for years to force Iran to comply with United Nations demands that it suspends all of its activities related to enriching uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons.
But Iran rejects international accusations that its nuclear work has military goals, saying it is for medical and energy purposes, and has repeatedly said it wants international sanctions eased before it limits its atomic work.
Three rounds of negotiations last year failed to produce to a breakthrough, fuelling concerns that the stand-off could prompt Israel to attack Iran's nuclear installations and envelop the Middle East in another war.
Western diplomats had hoped that a new round could take place in January, following last year's presidential election in the United States. But Iran had failed to respond in time to a proposal to have talks take place on January 15.
Ashton's spokesman said negotiators remained in contact to agree on a new date.
"The (world powers) are still hoping to reach agreement with Iran on the modalities of the talks, including venue, with a view to resuming talks shortly," he said.
The Iranian Students' News Agency reported on Wednesday that Tehran had proposed Cairo as a possible venue.
An EU diplomat said several locations had been proposed so far and there was no agreement.
"We do not exclude any, but Iran is proposing different venues all the time. The venue is not the issue, but Iran appears to be trying to delay the process by coming up with new conditions," the diplomat said.
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Luke Baker)