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Wed 4 Mar 2009 09:26 PM

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Iran envoy upbeat about possible nuke talks

Breakthrough possible in any future talks if western negotiating 'mentalities' change.

An Iranian envoy on Wednesday held out the prospect of a breakthrough in any talks about Tehran's nuclear work and other security issues if governments negotiate on an "equal footing" and without preconditions.

Underscoring a US turnabout from a policy of isolating Iran, Washington and five other big powers said on Tuesday they wanted direct talks with Iran to ease a deadlock over its refusal to halt nuclear work and open up to UN inspectors.

"(It) is Iran that is inviting others to come without preconditions," Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters outside a meeting of the UN nuclear monitor's 35-nation board of governors.

"We do not consider anybody, any of the parties as a super power... If this mentality is changed and they understand that they are on equal footing and come in a civilised manner... then there will be a breakthrough," Soltanieh said.

"We are ready for negotiations without any preconditions, talking about comprehensive issues, about all global issues, regional issues, regional security, economic cooperation."

But he warned that Western nations behind sanctions on Iran would have to respect its "inalienable right" to a peaceful nuclear programme if negotiations were to be fruitful.

Iran says it is refining uranium only for a civilian nuclear programme to generate electricity. But its record of nuclear secrecy and limits on IAEA non-proliferation inspections have stirred Western suspicions of an illicit quest for atom bombs.

Tehran has reacted cautiously to US indications of diplomatic outreach after decades of ostracising Iran, saying it is open to fair talks while demanding fundamental changes in US policy, namely US-driven sanctions and accusations Iran actively seeks nuclear weapons and supports terrorism.

Soltanieh said Tuesday's statement from the six powers was their way of "correcting the mistake" in getting IAEA governors in 2006 to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for sanctions rather than leaving inspectors to sort out the dispute.

But he also chided the IAEA, saying it had been forced by Western powers to put out incomplete reports on Iran's nuclear programme which did not reflect Iran's point of view.

"I harshly criticised that there is a deviation from the (IAEA's) expected statutory mandate," Soltenieh said.

"The agency is established for the promotion of international cooperation, for peaceful uses of nuclear energy but unfortunately safeguards (inspection) activities have overshadowed this," he said.

The IAEA's top legal counsel said on Wednesday Iran has strayed from non-proliferation obligations by ceasing to provide advance data on nuclear plans and allow inspector visits to a nascent heavy water reactor.

Briefing the IAEA's board of governors, Johan Rautenbach said this however did not mean Iran was in a more serious "non-compliance" with rules, a finding that could warrant further action by the UN Security Council.

On Monday, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran has been stonewalling agency inspectors and called on Tehran to unblock the "stalemate" and work to dispel fears of possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme.

Soltanieh said the only stalemate was political, caused by Western pressure on the IAEA to single out Iran.

The news came as Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said the nation plans to start up its first atomic power plant this summer.

Referring to the summer in the northern hemisphere, he made the comment a week after Iran said it carried out successful tests at the Russian-built Bushehr plant, taking it a step closer to its inauguration.

"The Bushehr nuclear power plant will be inaugurated in the summer," Mottaki told parliament in comments carried by state broadcaster IRIB and other Iranian media.

"This government sees it as its duty to finalise this project and, God willing, with its inauguration by summer we will be witnessing a political victory despite all the pressures imposed (on Iran)," he said. (Reuters)