Iran is stalling on fixing a date and location for a new round of talks on its nuclear program, the European Union's foreign policy chief said on Wednesday, but there is still hope that talks between Tehran and six world powers can begin soon.
EU officials have been in contact with Iranian negotiators repeatedly since December to try to prepare a new set of talks, which the West hopes will lead to Iran scaling back its nuclear work and avert the threat of another war in the Middle East.
But they have failed to agree on a plan so far.
"We proposed concrete dates and a venue in December,'' said a spokesman for Catherine Ashton, who oversees contacts with Iran on behalf of United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, often referred to as the six world powers.
"Since then, we have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses,'' spokesman Michael Mann said.
The Iranian Students' News Agency reported on Wednesday that Tehran had proposed Cairo as a possible venue, although without indicating when the meeting could take place.
The six powers have used a mix of diplomacy and economic sanctions for years to force Iran to comply with United Nations' demands that it suspend all of its activities related to enriching uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons.
But Iran rejects international accusations that its nuclear work has military goals, saying it is for medical and energy purposes, and has repeatedly said it wants international sanctions eased before it limits its atomic work.
Three rounds of negotiations last year failed to produce a breakthrough, fueling concerns that the stand-off could prompt Israel to attack Iran's nuclear installations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won a new term in office this week, has said he would not let Iran reach the capability to make nuclear arms.
Getting to Agreement
Western diplomats had hoped that a new round could take place in December or January, following last year's presidential election in the United States. But Iran had failed to respond in time to their proposals that included Jan. 15.
Another date, at the end of the month, was later floated by western diplomats and Iranian media as a new option.
Holding the talks in Egypt could indicate warming ties between Cairo and Tehran, two of the Middle East's most influential countries.
Ashton's spokesman said negotiators remained in contact about new plans. Diplomats have in the past said Istanbul was also an option.
"The [world powers] are still hoping to reach agreement with Iran on the modalities of the talks, including venue, with a view to resuming talks shortly,'' he said.
An EU diplomat added several locations had been proposed so far and there was no agreement.
"We do not exclude any, but Iran is proposing different venues all the time. The venue is not the issue, but Iran appears to be trying to delay the process by coming up with new conditions,'' the diplomat said.
A separate but closely linked strand of talks are also being held between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow the U.N. agency to resume a long-stalled probe into suspected nuclear bomb research by Iran.
Iran and the IAEA met for two days last week but failed to reach an agreement.
But IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said in an interview with Reuters Television at the World Economic Forum in Davos that he still hoped for progress.
"I think that they have an interest in having a dialogue with us and to discuss this issue and narrow the gap in order to finalise the agreement,'' he said.