VIENNA (Reuters) - Russia and China have urged the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief to give Iran time to study and respond to allegations of possible military-linked atomic activities before he publishes a report on the issue next month, diplomats said on Friday.
The move by Moscow and Beijing may be a sign of divisions among the six major powers -- also comprising the United States, France, Germany and Britain -- on how to best handle the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear programme.
Russia, which has commercial and other links with Iran, has proposed a step-by-step effort to defuse the nuclear standoff but Western diplomats have given the plan a cool response.
Iran has said it is willing to resume nuclear talks, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a letter to Tehran on Friday a meeting between Iran and the powers could take place soon if Iran agreed to "engage seriously" over its nuclear programme.
The United States and its allies suspect Iran is using its nuclear programme to develop atomic weapons and have gradually increased the sanctions pressure on Tehran, which says it needs to refine uranium for a planned network of power plants.
Director General Yukiya Amano of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected to present in detail next month the reasons for why he said in September he was "increasingly concerned" about Iran's nuclear work.
Western diplomats believe the document will heighten suspicions that Iran may be working on developing a nuclear missile and that it will strengthen their case to impose additional punitive measures on the major oil producer.
But the Russians and Chinese ambassadors to the IAEA presented a joint demarche to Amano this week arguing that Iran should be able to see the information and comment on it before it was published, one Vienna-based envoy said.
"LUKEWARM" IRANIAN RESPONSE
Apparently concerned that the report's timing could box Iran into a corner and damage any prospects for diplomacy, the envoy said they urged Amano to give Iran the "chance and time" to review and reply to its content.
Diplomats this week said that Russia feared that the upcoming IAEA report would undermine Moscow's initiative to resolve the nuclear dispute with Tehran.
Russia and China have backed four rounds of U.N. sanctions on Iran since 2006 over its refusal to halt sensitive nuclear work that could have both civilian and military uses.
But they criticised the United States and the European Union last year for taking extra unilateral steps against Iran and Moscow has signalled its opposition to any new U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Since negotiations between the powers and Iran foundered in January, Russia has advocated a phased plan in which Tehran would address concerns that it may be seeking nuclear weapons, and be rewarded with an easing of sanctions.
Iran has said it is willing to resume discussions, but its insistence that other countries recognise its right to enrich uranium is a major stumbling block, particularly for Western diplomats who see it as an unacceptable precondition.
The Russian plan "could still provide some way forward, but it would need to be adjusted so that sanctions weren't lifted until real Iranian cooperation was gained," nuclear analyst Peter Crail said.
"Given the lukewarm response the proposal received from Tehran, I don't think there is anything that the IAEA report is likely to jeopardize on that front," said Crail, of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.