By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Iran and the United States met in Geneva for bilateral talks on Thursday as international diplomacy intensifies to end a decade-old dispute over Tehran's atomic activities by a new deadline in late November.
The office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed Iran and six world powers would hold their first negotiating round since they failed to meet a July 20 target date for an agreement in New York on Sept. 18.
The deadline was extended until Nov. 24 after six months of talks because wide gaps persisted over the future scope of Iran's uranium enrichment program, which can have both civilian and military applications.
The six powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain - aim to persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for phasing out sanctions that have severely hurt its oil-dependent economy.
The election last year of President Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as a pragmatist, raised hopes of a settlement of the standoff after years of soaring tension and fears of a new Middle East war, and an interim accord was reached between Iran and the six powers in Geneva late last year.
But Western diplomats say the sides remain far apart on what a final deal should look like - especially on the issue of how many enrichment centrifuges Iran can operate - and that a successful outcome in the negotiations is far from guaranteed.
Western countries suspect Iran’s program is aimed at seeking the capability to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran says it is a peaceful project to generate electricity.
Thursday's meeting in Geneva between senior Iranian and U.S. officials was the second time they held talks in the Swiss city in the past month.
U.S. SANCTIONS PRESSURE
State news agency IRNA and a U.S. official confirmed the discussions were underway. "If there is good will and a constructive approach, we can reach a desired result before Nov. 24," IRNA quoted Iran's deputy foreign minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi as saying late on Wednesday.
The United States last week penalized a number of Iranian and other foreign companies, banks and airlines for violating sanctions against Tehran, saying it was sending a signal that there should be no evasion of sanctions while talks continue.
Rouhani said on Saturday the sanctions were against the spirit of negotiations, but added he was not pessimistic about the viability of the talks.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman were in the U.S. delegation at the Geneva talks, which will last for two days, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, one of Iran's chief negotiators, is also at the discussions, which IRNA said would last until Saturday.
Although the United States is part of the six-power negotiating track, any workable deal will likely have to be based on a bilateral agreement between Washington and Tehran. The United States cut off ties with Iran during a hostage crisis shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
High-level bilateral meetings between the United States and Iran, virtually unthinkable in years past, have become almost routine on the sidelines of the nuclear talks.
Ashton's office also confirmed that Iran and France, Britain and Germany would meet in Vienna on Sept. 11. Ashton is the coordinator of contacts with Iran on behalf of the six powers.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Moghtader in Dubai, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Martin Santa in Brussels; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)