By Mehrdad Balali and Fredrik Dahl
DUBAI/VIENNA (Reuters) - U.N. atomic agency officials held talks in Tehran on Monday before visits to two uranium sites, as Iran acts to implement a series of steps aimed at providing transparency on its nuclear research by a mid-May deadline, official Iranian media reported.
Iran and the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed late last year on a step-by-step process to help allay international concerns that Tehran may be developing nuclear weapons capability, a charge the Islamic Republic denies.
The IAEA's discussions with Iran are separate from Tehran's negotiations with six world powers on a broader settlement of the decade-old nuclear dispute. Both sets of talks are broadly aimed at ensuring that it will not develop such arms.
Iran wants an end to sanctions that are hurting its oil-dependent economy. After years of an increasingly hostile standoff with the West, last year's election of the pragmatist Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president paved the way for a thaw.
As part of seven measures Iran has agreed to take by May 15, IAEA inspectors will on Monday and Tuesday go to the Saghand uranium mine in central Iran and to the Ardakan ore processing plant, official Iranian media said.
IAEA access to such sites is considered important, because the uranium they produce, once refined, can be used in both nuclear power plants and, after further processing, nuclear bombs.
Iran said in April last year that it had begun operations at
Saghand and Ardakan. IAEA reports in 2010 and 2011 only referred to satellite imagery of the sites, saying construction appeared to be continuing at the time.
The head of the IAEA delegation, Massimo Aparo, will also discuss with Iranian nuclear officials how the U.N. agency would monitor a planned heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak, also among the seven steps, the IRNA news agency reported.
WEST WANTS MORE IRAN COOPERATION
The West fears the plant could yield plutonium for bombs once it is operational. Iran says it is a research reactor.
The future of the Arak site is also a key topic in the talks between Iran and the six powers - the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia - but diplomats and experts say they believe a compromise on this issue is within reach.
Another Iranian news agency, ISNA, said on Sunday that Iran had provided the IAEA with information it had requested about fast-functioning detonators that can be used to help set off an explosive atomic device, another of the agreed measures.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran's atomic energy organization, said Iran had "done most of the job in the seven areas" agreed with the IAEA, IRNA said on Monday.
There was no comment from the Vienna-based IAEA, which for years has been trying to investigate suspicions that Iran may have carried out research relevant to developing nuclear weapons. Iran says the allegations are baseless.
Western diplomats and experts say the measures announced so far have been relatively easy for Iran to agree to. They may become increasingly difficult as the U.N. agency presses for answers to sensitive questions on alleged atomic bomb research.
They hope the next phase of Iran-IAEA cooperation - which has yet to be announced - will include more issues directly related to alleged such activity.
The major powers want Iran to cooperate with the IAEA's investigation as part of a wider diplomatic accord to end the nuclear dispute. They hope the accord will be reached by a self-imposed July 20 deadline.
(Editing by Larry King)