Iran in new nuclear wrangling with world powers

ISTANBUL, Jan 21, 2011 (AFP) - World powers on Friday were to start crunch talks with Iran to resolve tensions over its controversial nuclear drive as Tehran raised its rhetoric saying it will "not retreat an inch."

But Russia -- which for the past decade has been building Iran's sole nuclear power plant -- also called for discussions on lifting UN sanctions on Tehran during the two-day talks in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

"The nuclear programme must be at the heart of the discussions and the problems that have not yet been resolved concerning it," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday in Istanbul.

"But there's not only one topic for this meeting, the lifting of sanctions on Iran must also be on the agenda," he said.

Moscow and Beijing, one of Iran's big trading partners, had backed all four sets of UN sanctions against Tehran.

The Iranian side, led by chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, will meet the so-called 5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany, led by EU's top diplomat Catherine Ashton on Friday and Saturday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met separately with Ashton and Jalili Thursday evening before a dinner he hosted for the two delegations, a Turkish diplomat told AFP.

World powers and Tehran's arch-foe Israel suspect that the Islamic republic is trying to develop atomic weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear programme, a claim Tehran denies.

The United States said Thursday it was seeking a "meaningful process" in addressing Iran's nuclear programme and wanted to see tangible results from the meeting.

"We seek to launch a meaningful and practical process that addresses the core issues with Iran's nuclear programme," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters in a statement.

The talks, expected to start at 0800 GMT, are aimed at ascertaining whether Iran is seeking nuclear weapons or is indeed looking only to meet the energy needs of its growing population, as it insists.

Iran is under four sets of United Nations sanctions over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, the sensitive process which can be used to make nuclear fuel or, in highly extended form, the fissile core of an atom bomb.

A first round of talks between Iran and the world powers were held in early December in Geneva, breaking a 14-month hiatus in the negotiations.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called on major powers to lift sanctions imposed on his country if they wanted to see progress in the talks.

Ahmadinejad raised the bar on Wednesay, telling a cheering crowd at home that Tehran would not back down from its nuclear programme.

"They say: 'We want negotiation'... You are free to choose the path (of either cooperation or confrontation), but bear in mind that by adopting the old path (of confrontation), you will face a more scandalous defeat," he said.

"You could not stop us from being nuclear ... The Iranian nation will not retreat an inch. The nuclear issue is over from the Iranian point of view."

Iran's atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi has gone further, insisting Tehran will not even discuss its "nuclear dossier" at the Istanbul meeting, which is the top agenda for the world powers.

But observers say Iran has always taken a hardline stance ahead of nuclear talks.

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