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Iran, Powers to Weigh Potential Nuclear Gathering

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and lead Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili meet in Moscow in June for the most recent high-level multilateral talks on Iran's contested atomic program. The two are expected by telephone on Friday to discuss the potential for another round of talks (AP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev). European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and lead Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili meet in Moscow in June for the most recent high-level multilateral talks on Iran's contested atomic program. The two are expected by telephone on Friday to discuss the potential for another round of talks (AP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev).

Iran and a representative of six major governments are set during a Friday telephone discussion to assess whether their sides have established sufficient common ground for a new multilateral gathering aimed at defusing an intensifying standoff over Tehran's atomic activities, the Iranian Students' News Agency reported on Wednesday.

Iranian senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton would address positions taken by their respective groups during a technical discussion in early July. The officials were originally slated to confer last Friday, but a 120-nation Nonaligned Movement session in Tehran resulted in the discussion's postponement, according to the state-run news organization.

High-level Iranian diplomats have met with counterparts from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States on three occasions this year in a bid to address international concerns that Tehran's atomic efforts are geared toward development of a bomb capability. The Persian Gulf regional power insists its nuclear ambitions are strictly nonmilitary in nature.

Multiple differences of opinion persisted following an early August telephone exchange between Ashton and Jalili, and the officials indicated their groups would reflect on the situation before determining whether to convene a new gathering.

Meanwhile, Washington and Tel Aviv received a stern Russian admonishment against employing armed force against Iran, Reuters reported.

"We warn those who are no strangers to military solutions ... that this would be harmful, literally disastrous for regional stability," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a Thursday report by Interfax.

Ryabkov said an Iran strike "would set off deep shocks in the security and economic spheres that would reverberate far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East region."

"We, as before, see no signs that there is a military dimension to Iran's nuclear program. No signs," the official stated.

"We see something different -- that there is nuclear material ... in Iran that is under the control of inspectors, specialists of the International Atomic Energy Agency," he said. "This nuclear material is not being shifted to military needs, this is officially confirmed by the (IAEA)."

Key elements of Ryabkov's stated position match those of Washington and European governments, one-time U.S. State Department analyst Mark Fitzpatrick said.

"If ... he means (Russia sees) no evidence that Iran is aiming to cross the threshold from capability to weapons production, then Ryabkov's statement is the same as the collective view of the United States and its European allies," Fitzpatrick said. The heads of U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this year indicated they do not believe Iran's leaders have made an official decision to seek a nuclear weapon.

"But Ryabkov goes too far in giving Iran the benefit of the doubt when he says Russia sees no signs of a military dimension," the expert said. "Maybe he means that the evidence is not yet confirmed. But there are certainly ample 'signs.'"

"Surely Russian intelligence is not so blind," he added.

Ryabkov also questioned efforts to achieve what he described as impractical goals by employing punitive economic measures.

"In recent times the tendency to use sanctions to achieve aims that are beyond reach in principle by means of pressure has become a passion that ... politicians on both sides of the Atlantic cannot overcome," the Russian diplomat said.

Concerns in Israel and the United States over their Iran planning have purportedly prompted the allies to avoid publicizing a trip this week to Israel by the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Agence France-Presse reported on Thursday.

Israeli armed forces declined to verify Adm. James Winnefeld's reported trip, described initially by Israeli army radio. Winnefeld traveled to Israel in response to a proposal by the country's No. 2 military official, armed forces Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, according to the media account.

The U.S. officer was anticipated to depart from Israel on Thursday.

Iran's atomic ambitions might constitute "the greatest challenge that the international community is now facing," AFP quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying on Wednesday.

"The international community must set a clear red line for Iran that it knows that it cannot go beyond in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and I think that as hard as it is, the economic sanctions have to be intensified," the Israeli leader said at a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.

Terzi added: "We cannot imagine an offensive or a call to the destruction of Israel without fearing for our own security."

The adoption of penalties against Iran's petroleum sector marked a "turning point," the ANSA English Media Service quoted the top Italian diplomat as saying, more than two months after the European Union embargo on Iranian oil entered into force. "Together with sanctions on the banking system, they have a dramatic influence on the Iranian economy and have led to an opening of the regime to conduct a dialogue."

It is unclear how long Tehran would require to potentially obtain a viable atomic arsenal, he said.

"We must accelerate the economic and political pressure on Iran, expanding what already agreed with countries such as Russia and China and involved countries of the region, such as Turkey, but also countries such as Brazil and India; isolate Iran so it will have no choice," Terzi stated.

"Israeli intervention is a declared possibility, it is one of the options that was never taken off the table," ANSAmed quoted him as saying. "It will come closer should the Iranian nuclear program continue at its current intensity and its current acceleration."

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