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Progress seen on new Iran sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Major powers on Thursday made progress towards agreeing on new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program and hope to have their U.N. ambassadors begin drafting a formal Security Council resolution next week, a senior U.S. official said.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks upon his arrival at the Khartoum airport in Sudan, February 28, 2007. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin

The official told Reuters senior officials representing the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany “were able to resolve most of the issues” in a two-hour conference call on Thursday and hoped to complete their deliberations in another conference call on Saturday.

Washington and leading European countries say they suspect Iran has a covert nuclear bomb agenda. Tehran denies the charge and says its nuclear program is solely aimed at generating electricity.

The first sanctions resolution seeking suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program was approved by the Security Council in December. It took the United States and its partners several months of bitter wrangling to pass the resolution and the Americans, at least, are keen to avoid that kind of division this time.

But despite the Security Council’s unified commitment to dissuade Iran from pursuing uranium enrichment, Russia and China have often had serious objections to specific penalties.

“They are working on the guts of a resolution ... They were able to resolve most issues (but) they still have a few left so they will get together Saturday morning via telephone,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The hope and expectation is that they can then move this over to permanent representatives in New York who can start drafting the actual test of the resolution,” he added.

Earlier, however, a European Union diplomat said, “A wish list of incrementally increased sanctions has been circulated but the discussion is nowhere near mature and this will not go to the Security Council for 2-3 more weeks.”

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In Madrid, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said his government wants a negotiated solution to its nuclear standoff with world powers but this must recognise an Iranian right to a peaceful nuclear program.

World powers have said they accept Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy but not to nuclear weapons.

Iran has ignored a U.N. demand to halt enrichment -- which can be used either in energy or weapons programs -- and this prompted the first round of sanctions in December.

On Wednesday, senior foreign ministry officials distributed a working paper with measures proposed by the six participants.

According to U.N. and European diplomats, the measures included a mandatory travel ban on Iranian officials involved in the nuclear program and an expansion of the list of banned nuclear material and technology Iran and import and export.

Also under consideration is enlarging the list of Iranian officials whose assets were frozen in the December resolution. But envoys said a total arms embargo would be dropped because of Russian objections, along with a ban on visas for students studying nuclear technology abroad.

Diplomats also discussed restricting export credits provided by European governments to companies doing business in Iran. Washington has pushed for Europe to end such credits.

Germany, Britain and France have discouraged businesses from applying for export credits, arguing now is a risky time to pursue deals with Iran and diplomats told Reuters they believe they have been effective.

To cut down negotiating time, the new U.N. resolution is expected to use the same framework and much of the language of the December resolution.

Like Iran, major powers say they are committed to a negotiated solution. But Washington, which also says “all options” are on the table, has ratcheted up pressure by sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf.

A senior Iranian diplomat was due to hold talks with Chinese officials in Beijing that would cover the nuclear dispute as China repeated its plea for a negotiated settlement.

Additional reporting by Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations, Jane Barret in Madrid, Chris Buckley and Tamora Vidaillet in Beijing, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Mark Heinrich in Vienna and Louis Charbonneau in Berlin