June 18, 2013 / 3:07 PM / 4 years ago

Chance for progress on Iran nuclear issue must be seized - Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov smiles during a meeting with his Italian counterpart Emma Bonino in Moscow, June 15, 2013.Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Iran has taken constructive steps toward compromise in the decade-old standoff over its nuclear programme and world powers should reciprocate, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in remarks published on Tuesday.

Iranians elected a new moderate president, Hassan Rohani, on Friday and he held out the prospect on Monday of a thaw in relations between Iran and the world, including the United States, and progress on resolving the nuclear dispute.

Asked by a Kuwaiti news agency if he was satisfied with the state of the still inconclusive talks and whether Rohani's rise would help, Lavrov made little mention of Rohani but said "hopeful signs" had emerged for the first time in years and it would be "inexcusable not to take advantage of this opportunity".

His remarks appeared aimed at coaxing the Islamic Republic into a new round of talks with six powers and encouraging Western nations, which have been tougher on Tehran than Russia has, to bring strong incentives to the table.

"The international community should respond to constructive moves by Iran adequately and with reciprocity, including the gradual suspension and removal of sanctions," he told the KUNA news agency in an interview posted on his ministry's website.

The six powers - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and German - want Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities to reassure the world that it is not seeking to develop the means to build nuclear weapons.

Iran denies having any such purposes, saying it aims to produce nuclear energy only for electricity or medical purposes.

Lavrov said Iran's readiness at least to discuss suspending enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent fissile purity - a level after which further refinement to weapons-grade purity is relatively easy - could be the key to resolving the dispute.

"The Iranians affirm the most important thing - readiness already at this stage to agree the suspension of uranium to 20 percent. This could really become a breakthrough agreement."

IRAN UNIMPRESSED BY POWERS' OFFER

At talks in April in Kazakhstan, Iran did not accept an offer of modest sanctions relief in exchange for steps including suspension of enrichment to 20 percent, but it has said that such a suspension can be discussed.

Rohani on Monday pledged to "revive ethics and constructive interaction with the world through moderation" but signalled no immediate change in Iran's core negotiating stance: the powers must recognise what he called Iran's right to enrichment, not interfere in Iranian internal affairs and end hostile policies.

In a separate statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow "welcomes (Rohani's) declaration of Tehran's readiness to display more openness about its nuclear programme" and hopes the promise will be borne out in practice swiftly.

After talks at a G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday, Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama voiced cautious optimism that Rohani's election would open up nuclear dialogue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, which has warned of possible military action against Iran if sanctions and diplomacy fail to alter its nuclear course, said the vote was unlikely to lead to such a change.

Iran's hardline theocratic supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds ultimate authority over major state policies including the nuclear programme, but the president does exercise influence on decision-making.

Rohani is a former chief nuclear negotiator with big powers.

Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear power plant and sells Iran weapons, has been more upbeat than the United States and European Union about Tehran's attitude toward the negotiations and less concerned about any nuclear weapon agenda.

Moscow has approved four rounds of sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council but vocally opposes any new sanctions.

Lavrov said a date and site for a new round of talks between the six powers and Iran should be set as soon as possible. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov repeated that call on Tuesday on the sidelines of a G8 summit in Northern Ireland.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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