- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

VIENNA Six world powers struggled Wednesday to find common ground on how harshly to criticize Iran, reflecting the difficulties of presenting a united front at upcoming talks with the Islamic republic meant to coax it into reducing activities that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.

A 35-nation meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board was scheduled to discuss concerns about Iran’s nuclear program Wednesday. But its rapid and unscheduled adjournment reflected the East-West divide.

The United States, Britain, France and Germany seek a joint statement that takes Iran to task for defying U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it end uranium enrichment and cooperate with an IAEA probe of suspicions it secretly worked on nuclear arms.

But a senior Western diplomat told the Associated Press that Russia and China - which have condemned Western sanctions on Iran as counterproductive - want more moderate language. He asked for anonymity because his information was privileged.

While divisions along such lines are not new, the fact that diplomats at the IAEA meeting have been unable to bridge them three days into the meeting reflects poorly on hopes of unity at talks scheduled in the near future between Iran and the six.

Open skepticism within the Western camp about Iran’s readiness to negotiate cast further doubt about the outcome of those talks, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe saying he is not convinced the Islamic republic is ready to compromise over its nuclear program.

Speaking for the six powers - which repeatedly have tried and failed to wrest concessions from Iran - European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced Tuesday that they had agreed to new talks at a still-to-be determined time and venue.

Even minor progress at such a meeting would help lower tensions exacerbated by increasingly frequent warnings from Israel of possible military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But Mr. Juppe said Wednesday he’s “a bit skeptical” about the outcome after previous failures.

“I think Iran is continuing to use doublespeak,” Mr. Juppe said on France’s i-Tele television. “That’s the reason why we must remain extremely firm on the sanctions we have decided upon, which are from my point of view the best way to avoid a military option, which could have immeasurable consequences.”

Iran has steadfastly rejected demands to halt its uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be the foundation for a future nuclear weapons program.

Iran claims it seeks only energy and medical research from its reactors, but it wants full control over the nuclear process from uranium ore to fuel rods.

It also has stonewalled an IAEA probe of suspected clandestine research and development into nuclear weapons for four years, dismissing the allegations as based on forged intelligence from the U.S. and Israel.

In a possible concession Tuesday, Tehran said inspectors could visit Parchin, a military site that the IAE suspects was used for secret atomic weapons work. An IAEA official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, dismissed the offer as a stalling tactic.

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