BRASILIA Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday he is counting on progress at a round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers next week, and added that momentum must be kept up after the talks to keep them on track.
The powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - are scheduled to meet Iranian negotiators in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on February 26 to see if there is a way to ease Western concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
But in a development that was likely to cast a shadow over the talks, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Thursday that Iran had begun installing advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant.
Many countries fear Iran's nuclear program is just a cover for developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity and producing medical isotopes.
"The group of six has carried out meaningful preparatory work for the round in Almaty," Ryabkov told Reuters on a trip to Brazil with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
"We are counting on some developments in the forthcoming round," he said, without giving details.
Russia has balanced its traditionally warm ties with Iran with increasing pressure on Tehran to respond to international concerns.
A series of resolutions since 2006 from the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow is a permanent member, have demanded Iran suspend all its enrichment-related activities due to concerns about the nature of the nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who was in Russia this week, said Tehran hopes for positive steps at the talks, without giving any details what they might consist of or which side they might come from.
Ryabkov, who has been a member of the Russian delegation at past talks, cautioned against expecting any breakthroughs.
"Without hope of movement forward - I underscore movement forward, progress, not a breakthrough, not a cardinal shift, that definitely won't happen - but without hope of progress ... there is no sense to meeting," he said.
"Progress is slow and expectations are not very high, but it shows that we are not moving in the wrong direction."
Russia has worked to keep talks going and hosted talks last year, which European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called "intense", but which ultimately produced no breakthrough.
Ryabkov warned against any large gaps in time like the 15-month hiatus which preceded rounds of talks that led up to the Moscow meeting in order to keep work on track.
"We don't want a long pause for any period of time after Almaty which would be an obstacle for normal work on negotiations," he said.
(Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)