BAGHDAD -- Iranian negotiators have countered a proposal from six world powers by presenting Tehran's own plan to resolve the long-running dispute over its nuclear development program, according to a state-controlled Iranian news agency.
The Iranian negotiators, meeting in Baghdad with diplomats from the U.S. and five other leading nations seeking to curtail any Iranian nuclear weapons development, have laid out five ideas on nuclear and nonnuclear activities, the IRNA agency said. Details of the Iranian counteroffer were not disclosed.
The talks on Iran's nuclear program opened at an imposing guest house in Baghdad's international zone at midday with a group session led by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief. The group is expected to outline a proposed interim deal under which Iran would halt production of 20% enriched uranium, which can be purified relatively easily to material that can be used in a nuclear bomb. Iran would also surrender control of uranium already processed and dismantle an underground bunker where it is being refined.
In return, the six-nation bloc would hold off on further sanctions against Iran and would provide incentives including assistance with Iran's civilian nuclear program.
Iran has been feeling the pinch of sanctions limiting its oil trade and access to international banks, and Tehran has been expected to press for some relief from those restrictions if it agrees to allow inspectors at facilities where some suspect preparations are underway for weapons development. Iran insists its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes.
As the talks got underway, there was a sign that the unity of the six powers -- the five U.N. Security council permanent members (U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France), plus Germany -- might be weakening. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, attacked U.S. lawmakers for adding new sanctions on Iran this week, and said American leaders should be removing them.
"As Iran takes a step toward the global community, the world community should take steps for weaker sanctions against Iran," Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
Western diplomats have said that Russia and China are firmly behind their latest proposal to Iran, which calls for giving no ground on sanctions.
The Baghdad meeting is the second this year aimed at trying to relieve fears that Iran is close to reaching a bomb-making capability.
Western officials at the talks declined comment on the report of a new Iranian offer. In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the initial round "was important because the Iranians focused on their nuclear program."
The United States and its allies will continue imposing sanctions on Iran, while "on a separate track" participate in the negotiations to reach a diplomatic resolution of the matter, Carney said.
The IRNA report surfaced after the initial meeting of the two sides in Baghdad aimed at resolving a four-year standoff over inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency officials.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano visited Tehran earlier this week and said Tuesday that the U.N. agency was close to a deal giving inspectors access to some of Iran's disputed nuclear sites, providing a dose of optimism ahead of the Baghdad talks.
Amano said he expected to sign a deal with Iran "quite soon." He spoke to reporters in Vienna after returning from Tehran -- the first time Iranian officials had been willing to meet with him in their capital since he became head of the agency in 2009.
Amano, who has pressed hard for Iran to provide better access to its nuclear sites and personnel, told reporters he considered the deal to be "an important development," according to a transcript released by the agency.
For months, talk of war has dominated discussions about Iran. Israeli officials have strongly suggested they might bomb Iranian nuclear sites if they believe the Iranian nuclear development efforts have gone too far.
Israel responded with deep skepticism to Amano's report of an imminent breakthrough, reiterating demands that all uranium enrichment cease in Iran and that stockpiles already produced be shipped out of the country to ensure they aren't upgraded to a weapons-quality level. Israel also wants Iran to shut down its nuclear facility at Qom.
Negotiations in Baghdad continued after a dinner break Wednesday night, but it was unclear whether the talks would resume on Thursday.
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Diplomats from Iran and the 5-plus-1 bloc -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- meeting in Baghdad on Wednesday for talks on how to improve international access to Iran's nuclear facilities. European Pressphoto Agency / Iraqi government handout