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EU's Ashton wants Iran talks soon, nuclear focus

ROME (Reuters) - Stalled talks between Iran and world powers should begin again as quickly as possible but must focus on Tehran’s nuclear program, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Wednesday.

“I’ve made it clear...that we would like those talks to resume quickly and that we would be very clear that the issue on the table is Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and approach,” Ashton told reporters at a conference in Rome. “That is the issue. All other issues can be discussed later.”

Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, says its uranium enrichment program is aimed at peaceful energy generation. But, given Tehran’s history of hiding sensitive nuclear activity from U.N. inspectors and continued restrictions on their access, many countries believe its enrichment activity is ultimately intended to yield nuclear weapons.

Western analysts say Iran has stockpiled enough enriched uranium to fuel 1-2 atom bombs, but probably remains a few years away from the ability to build a deliverable nuclear weapon, allowing time for diplomacy to rein in its atomic program.

Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- as well as Germany (P5+1), meant to address concerns about Tehran’s uranium enrichment, stalled last October, leading to a toughening of international sanctions.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili wrote to Ashton on July 6 calling for a resumption of talks, which Tehran has since said could take place after the end in mid-September of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Ashton, representing the P5+1, welcomed Jalili’s gesture.

But given Iran’s long-time refusal to put what it calls its “inalienable” right to nuclear energy up for negotiation, Western officials are wary of Iranian efforts to dodge the main issue in talks, buying time for advances in enrichment.

They have not been encouraged by conditions raised by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for further talks. He has said further countries must be involved, the parties must say whether they seek friendship or hostility with Iran and they must express a view on Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal.

Reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Mark Heinrich