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Iran nuclear talks 'substantive and useful,' but without breakthrough

Iran's foreign minister has said he sees "signs" of an international deal on Tehran's nuclear program. The EU's Catherine Ashton called the latest talks "substantive and useful," while the US spoke of "hard work" ahead.

"We had substantive and useful discussions covering a set of issues including [uranium] enrichment, the Arak reactor, civil nuclear cooperation and sanctions," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the latest round of talks between six world powers and Iran.

Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, issued the same statement in Farsi at the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna. Zarif also said he was optimistic of a comprehensive deal with the international community by late July - when last November's landmark interim agreement with Iran expires.

"There are signs that an understanding is possible that respects the rights of the Iranian nation," Zarif was also quoted as saying by Iranian media.

The only concrete agreement to come out this week's talks was the decision to reconvene in Vienna again on April 7.

July target, Arak and enrichment issues sensitive

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1, are seeking an accord with Iran on its nuclear program. The international goal is to ensure that the Iranian nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, with the removal of longstanding sanctions against Tehran on the table as a potential reward.

In November's interim agreement, Iran froze key parts of its nuclear program in return for mild sanctions relief, a promise of no new sanctions for six months, and the start of the negotiations in Vienna chaired by the EU's Catherine Ashton.

The Arak reactor mentioned by Ashton on Wednesday is one of the remaining sticking points. The US has cautioned that the heavy-water reactor could be used to create weapons-grade plutonium, although Tehran counters that the facility would only be used to create radio-isotopes for medical treatments.

Bipartisan concerns in Washington

The enrichment of uranium - another element that can be used in a nuclear bomb if highly purified - is another problematic sticking point. The Reuters news agency quoted a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying that on the question of enrichment, there remained "a gap that's going to take some hard work to get to a place where we can find agreement."

Iranian state media on Wednesday quoted President Hassan Rouhani as telling his cabinet that the country would reserve the right to enrich uranium.

"The world has admitted that Iran is, and will be, among the countries which have nuclear technology, including enrichment, and there is no doubt about this for anyone," Rouhani said.

This followed a bipartisan letter submitted to US President Barack Obama on Tuesday night, signed by 83 of 100 US Senators saying: "We believe that Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

The current interim deal with Iran is due to expire on July 20, but could be extended if no final agreement is reached.

msh/jlw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)