By Caroline Copley
GENEVA, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Iran, facing growing international pressure over its nuclear programme, called for more talks with the U.N. nuclear watchdog on Tuesday and condemned production of atomic weapons as a "great sin".
Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful but negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have stalled and Western powers have grown increasingly concerned over the possible military dimensions of Tehran's atomic work.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a speech to the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, said he expected talks to continue and that he was optimistic they would proceed in the right direction.
"I would like to re-emphasise that we do not see any glory, pride or power in the nuclear weapons, quite the opposite based on the religious decree issued by our supreme leader, the production, possession, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, are illegitimate, futile, harmful, dangerous and prohibited as a great sin," he said.
However many in the Western camp were sceptical, with the IAEA saying no further talks were scheduled, given what Western diplomats have described as Iran's unwillingness to address allegations of military nuclear research.
A report by the IAEA last week said Iran was significantly stepping up its uranium enrichment, a finding that sent oil prices higher on fears tensions between Tehran and the West could escalate into military conflict.
Israel has threatened to launch strikes to prevent Iran getting the bomb, saying Tehran's continued technological progress means it could soon pass into a "zone of immunity".
In high-level meetings between the IAEA and Iran, held in Tehran in January and February, Iranian officials stuck to a refusal to address intelligence reports about covert research relevant to developing nuclear weapons, Western diplomats say.
Salehi, addressing reporters in Geneva, said Iran expected the "dialogue that has started" with the IAEA would continue.
"There was some disagreement on drafting an initial framework that would set the ground for a new roadmap as how to proceed," Salehi said. "We are optimistic that upcoming meetings...will be proceeding hopefully in the right direction."
"FAILURE TO COMPLY"
Laura Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, rejected Salehi's comments, saying they stood in "stark contrast to Iran's failure to comply with its international obligations" regarding its nuclear programme.
"Indeed, Iran has moved in the opposite direction by expanding its capacity to enrich uranium to nearly 20 percent and continues to move forward with proscribed enrichment and heavy-water related activities, all in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions," Kennedy told the talks.
Kennedy said that Iran's "persistent stonewalling" of the IAEA's investigation into possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme was "very troubling".
In Vienna, where the IAEA is based, one envoy said the lack of progress in getting Tehran to start responding to the suspicions was a clear indication that it is "not serious at all in entering any meaningful negotiation".
Another Vienna-based official familiar with the issue said the IAEA team had asked for Iran's initial position on issues raised by the U.N. agency in a detailed November report that pointed to a possible covert nuclear weapons agenda in Iran.
There were sixty-five paragraphs in the IAEA's report and the Iranian side responded with "sixty-five no's," the official said, making clear that Iran had rejected all information indicating illicit attempts to design a nuclear bomb.
In Geneva, Salehi accused the West of double standards for backing Iran's arch-enemy Israel, the only Middle East state outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and believed to be have the only nuclear arsenal in the region.
"We have clearly stated time and time again there are two alternatives in dealing with the Iranian peaceful nuclear programme. One way is engagement, cooperation and interaction. The other is confrontation and conflict," Salehi said.
"Iran is confident of the peaceful nature of its programme and has always insisted on the first alternative. When it comes to our relevant rights and obligations, our consistent position is that Iran does not seek confrontation, nor does it want anything beyond its inalienable, legitimate rights." (Additional reporting by Vincent Fribault and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Maria Golovnina)