MOSCOW -- After two days of contentious talks, representatives of Iran and six world powers negotiating over Tehran's nuclear program decided Tuesday to refrain from immediately scheduling another high-level meeting and instead to convene lower-level officials to discuss technical issues.
The shift is another sign of the obstacles facing the negotiations, which have made little progress in bridging the differences between the sides in three similar meetings this year. The major powers are concerned that, despite Iran's assurances of peaceful intent, the Tehran regime might use its nuclear program to develop weapons.
In announcing the new plan, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said that despite "tough and frank exchanges" over five group meetings in Moscow, "it remains clear that there are significant gaps between the substance of the two positions."
Ashton said technical experts are scheduled to meet July 3 in Istanbul, Turkey, to clarify a proposal from the six powers -- Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States -- while also discussing Iran's counteroffer.
Following that meeting, the second-ranking EU and Iranian officials will be in touch. After that, Ashton said, she would contact the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, about another high-level meeting between the seven countries.
EU officials said they believe that another high-level meeting is "probable."
The shift is likely to draw criticism from several quarters. Israeli President Shimon Peres last week questioned whether the talks are making enough progress to justify their continuation, amid continued fears that Israel might carry out a preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Forty-four U.S. senators last week wrote President Obama saying he should consider halting the talks if no tangible progress was made in Moscow.
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, center, takes part in talks on his country's controversial nuclear program in Moscow on Tuesday. Credit: Alexander Nemenov / Associated Press