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UN atomic agency to hold December talks with Iran

By by Simon Sturdee

VIENNA (AFP) — The UN atomic agency said Friday it will next month hold its first talks with Iran since August over Tehran's contested nuclear programme, in a first sign of renewed diplomatic activity since the US election.

"The IAEA and Iran have agreed to hold further talks on 13 December in Tehran," International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.

"The aim is to conclude the structured approach to resolving outstanding issues related to Iran's nuclear programme."

The Vienna-based IAEA wants Tehran to address evidence it says it has suggesting that until 2003, and possibly since, Iran conducted research work "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device."

A parallel diplomatic push by six world powers has been aimed at persuading Iran to scale back parts of its current nuclear programme because of suspicions -- denied by Tehran -- that it wants the bomb.

Efforts on both "tracks" have however effectively been on hold in recent months because of campaigning for the US presidential election on Tuesday won by incumbent Barack Obama.

The last high-level talks between Iran and the P5+1 -- the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany -- took place in Moscow in June. The last IAEA-Iran talks were in August.

"The (US) administration was in a very defensive position for the past six months," Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said this week. "It was also difficult for Iran because they didn't want to negotiate with someone who might not be in office after November."

Analysts and diplomats told AFP after Obama's re-election this week that a new round of P5+1 talks was possible before the end of the year or in early 2013. Experts also see bilateral US-Iranian talks as possible.

However, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there were no plans yet for a meeting of the P5+1 group, and again categorically denied as "ridiculous" reports of secret talks between Washington and Tehran.

"We commend the IAEA for keeping at it, and we call on Iran to do what it needs to do to meet the international community's concerns," she told journalists.

An announcement by Iran this week that it will attend a forum in Finland in December on creating a Middle East free of nuclear weapons was also interpreted as a sign that with Obama re-elected Tehran may be ready to talk again.

In a reminder of the still-high tensions, however, Iran's defence minister said Friday that two Iranian fighter jets had fired on a US drone in the Gulf last week, confirming comments from the Pentagon.

Iran has rejected the IAEA's weaponisation claims, set out in a major report a year ago, as baseless.

In particular the IAEA wants to be able to visit the Parchin military base near Tehran where the agency says suspected activities spotted from space will "significantly hamper" its ability to inspect the site.

In September Iran's atomic chief accused the agency of being infiltrated by "terrorists" and saboteurs. The IAEA says repeatedly that it is unable to confirm Iran's assertions that its programme is entirely peaceful.

Several Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in recent years and the country's nuclear facilities have been targeted by cyberattacks blamed by Tehran on Washington and Israel.

The UN Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions on the Islamic regime, which coupled with unilateral Western restrictions on Iran's oil sector and banks have begun to cause major problems this year for the country's economy.

In May the P5+1 set out a package of proposals in talks with Iran calling on it to suspend the enrichment of uranium to 20-percent purity.

This is the most worrisome aspect of Iran's programme since it is relatively easy to further purify such uranium to the 90 percent needed for the fissile core of a nuclear bomb.

The P5+1 also called on Iran to shut its Fordo enrichment facility, dug into a mountain near the holy city of Qom, and to ship out its stockpiles of 20-percent-enriched uranium.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief and P5+1 chief negotiator Catherine Ashton said on Friday the new IAEA-Iran talks were "long overdue and could be an initial step on the path to resolve outstanding issues."

Israel, the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state, has refused to rule out military action to stop its arch-rival Iran also getting nuclear weapons.