By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian diplomat said on Wednesday that Iran and Western nations had shown interest in a Russian proposal aimed to help defuse the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program, but suggested it had not been the focus of talks this month.
Russia has been calling for a "step-by-step" resolution to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which Western nations fear is aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Tehran says is purely peaceful.
Moscow says Iran should take measures to ease concerns about its intentions and comply with U.N. demands, and in return be rewarded with the gradual easing of sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council and Western states.
In a proposal aired in February, Russia says that as a start, Iran could freeze the number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment at current levels and place other restrictions on its centrifuge use. In return, global powers would refrain from imposing new sanctions on Tehran.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the proposal was discussed at talks in Istanbul on April 14 between Iran and six world powers - Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany - the first such meeting in over a year. A new round of talks is to be held on May 23 in Baghdad.
Ryabkov said Iran and Western powers indicated they were "interested" in the proposal, which he suggested was one of a number of ideas being discussed by the global powers as they seek to forge a common position among themselves and to find room for progress with Iran.
"We are keeping all our proposals on the negotiating table, but the work now is proceeding in a somewhat different format," said Ryabkov, Russia's representative at the talks.
"We are working in order for the (six powers) to have a consolidated position, and our ideas are given weighty consideration in this regard," he said by telephone.
Russia has not specified whether it believes agreement by Iran to the centrifuge restrictions would require the European Union to abandon plans, agreed in January, to stop all Iranian oil imports as of July.
"Many (EU) member states remain concerned about the idea of forsaking sanctions before they have even begun, and without negotiations having moved to the second stage," one Western diplomat said.
In late March, Ryabkov said some Western states involved in the diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program were unlikely to be enthusiastic about the proposal. Iran has made little public comment about the idea.
Russia supported four rounds of sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council, where it holds veto power, but has emphasized it opposes further sanctions and repeatedly said too much pressure can be counterproductive.
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)