REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Talks between Iran and six world powers over the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear program have hit a new snag as Tehran is seeking to change the venue for next week's opening negotiations.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced last week that talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany would be held in Istanbul on April 13 and 14.
But Iran does not appear enthusiastic about the site, spurring calls from Iranian officials to find an alternate venue and a debate on other potential host cities. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, said at the end of a Cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday that Istanbul remains a suitable site but that the Islamic Republic is looking for other locations, Iranian state television reported.
Iran's relationship with Turkey has become increasingly strained in the past year due to Turkish criticism of Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran.
Mohsen Rezai, the secretary-general of Iran's influential Expediency Council, which advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said this week that it would be better to hold the talks "in another friendly country," according to a report by the Iranian Labor News Agency, or ILNA.
He suggested that Baghdad, Damascus or Beirut would be more "appropriate locations" than Turkey.
Tabnak, an Iranian news website close to Rezai, reported Thursday that Tehran had "officially" requested neighboring Iraq, which like Iran has a Shiite Muslim-dominated government, to play host for the talks, quoting a top Iraqi official.
China was also suggested as an alternate host, according to Iranian media reports.
Rezai stressed the importance of the location of the negotiations, saying "a wrong signal" should not be given to the six world powers and that the group should not be under the impression that Iran is in "a weak position", according to ILNA. Some observers suggested Iran was seeking to flex its muscles by backtracking on the proposed venue at the last minute.
This month's planned round of talks would represent the first between the Islamic Republic and the six world powers -- the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany -- in over a year.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stressed the importance of the talks going ahead.
"The situation is very complicated and could get worse," he was quoted as saying by Russia's Interfax news agency. "We can't wait any more."
The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons but Iran insists its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran