By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - World powers and Iran agreed at a low-level meeting in Istanbul to continue technical talks over Tehran's nuclear program, European Union officials said on Wednesday, in hopes of salvaging diplomacy meant to resolve the decade-old dispute.
After three rounds of political negotiations failed to secure a breakthrough earlier this year, the six powers and Iran went into technical discussions aimed at clarifying aspects of Tehran's nuclear energy work.
Such technical talks, which began with a round in Istanbul on Tuesday, are intended to prepare ground for an eventual meeting of political negotiators who could, in time, reach an agreement.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who leads diplomatic efforts on behalf of the six - the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - said senior EU and Iranian negotiators would hold follow-up talks.
"In Istanbul... experts explored positions on a number of technical subjects," Michael Mann said in a statement. No date was yet set for the next round.
Tensions between the West and Iran have increased since high-level negotiations foundered in Moscow in June, with Tehran saying it had successfully tested medium-range missiles capable of hitting Israel as a response to threats of attack.
At the Moscow meeting, Iran refused to stop enriching uranium to levels close to weapons-grade and to ship any stockpile out of the country, unless Western governments ease punitive economic sanctions and acknowledge its right to enrich uranium under international law.
Iran rejects Western suspicions that its nuclear work has a military dimension, insisting it is for electricity generation and medical needs.
Extended economic sanctions went into effect this week, with the European Union imposing an embargo on Iranian crude oil on July 1 and Washington introducing other measures.
During the Istanbul technical talks, which ran into Wednesday morning after more than 12 hours, negotiators discussed issues such as Iran's formerly clandestine Fordow facility, where high-grade enrichment is taking place.
The six powers want the bunkered, underground facility closed, but there are disagreements with the Iranian side on how this could done or what exactly is going on in Fordow.
One Western diplomat said the two sides made some progress in bridging differences over various issues, but that no political talks were scheduled yet.
"The meeting was intended to get more clarity about each other's positions. I think that worked well," the diplomat said.
"In the late hours, a real discussion in a form of questions and answers developed. Our task was not to bring positions any closer, but to better understand it."
Experts say the technical talks underline the eagerness on both sides to keep the diplomatic engagement going and reduce the risk of the stand-off boiling over into a regional war.
"It doesn't really indicate that a deal is particularly close at all," said Middle East analyst David Hartwell of IHS Jane's. "But at the same time maybe both sides have concluded that, at least for the foreseeable future, it is better to keep talking than to sever contact altogether."
Israel, widely thought to be the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear weapons capacity, says it could strike Iran if diplomacy fails to secure a halt to its nuclear work.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Mark Heinrich)