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VIENNA (Reuters) - The United States may discuss the security crisis in Iraq with Iran on the sidelines of this week's nuclear talks in Vienna, a senior U.S. official said on Monday, in what could mark a momentous step in U.S. engagement with its longtime adversary.
The negotiations in the Austrian capital between Iran and six world powers are "focused solely" on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, the Obama administration official said, but "it may be that on the margins of the (nuclear meeting), but completely unconnected to it, there may be some conversation."
Both Washington and Tehran are alarmed by the rapid advance in Iraq of insurgents from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is seeking to re-create a medieval Islamic caliphate across much of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Regarding the nuclear talks between Iran and the big powers being held from Monday through Friday, the U.S. official said there were no discussions at moment on a possible extension of the July 20 deadline for a long-term deal to end sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its atomic energy program.
"We are entirely focused on getting an agreement by July 20," the official said, although there were still significant gaps in positions between the sides. The West suspects Iran has been seeking the means to make nuclear bombs behind the facade of a civilian uranium enrichment program. Tehran denies any such intent, although it has a history of evading and restricting U.N. nuclear inspections.
"On the most important subjects we are not even close to an outline of solutions," a Western diplomat said. "I can’t say what will happen between now and July, but what is for sure is that we will need to work day, night and weekends. "
Diplomatic sources have told Reuters that it is increasingly likely Iran will seek an extension of the deadline. [ID:nL1N0OL0YZ] However, the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "I think that everyone needs to understand there is no automatic extension here, it has to be mutually agreed."
The official said the U.S. delegation, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and including Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Bill Burns, was to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday to build on talks the two sides held at lower level last week in Geneva. A State Department official later said the meeting had begun. "We not only understood each other better after those two days but I think we both can see places where we might be able to close those gaps," the official said of the Geneva parley.
Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed on the July deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement when they hammered out an interim deal on the decade-old nuclear stand-off in Geneva on Nov. 24.
The November accord - under which Iran suspended some sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief - allowed for a six-month extension if necessary for a settlement to remove the threat of a new war in the Middle East.
An extension would allow up to half a year more for partial sanctions waivers and restraints on Iranian nuclear activity as agreed in Geneva. To avoid open conflict with a hawkish Congress, Obama will want the lawmakers' approval for extending.
The previous round of talks in Vienna, in mid-May, ran into difficulties when it became clear that the number of centrifuge enrichment machines Iran wanted to maintain was well beyond what would be acceptable to the West.
Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated goal, but also provide material for atomic bombs, which the West fears may be it ultimate aim.
"Iran wants a lot and we are ready to only give a little. A strong capacity to enrich enables them to quickly move to an armed nuclear weapon, a weak capacity delays that substantially," the Western diplomat said.
Editing by Mark Heinrich