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An Iranian Shihab missile. Photo by AP
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United Nations nuclear inspectors hope to gain access to the Parchin military site during a visit to Iran this week as part of an investigation into suspected nuclear bomb research, the delegation leader said on Tuesday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) aims to finalize a framework deal with Iran in Wednesday's talks in Tehran that would enable it to resume its inquiry, IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts said.

He was speaking at Vienna airport before he and a team of other senior IAEA officials departed for the Iranian capital for a new round of negotiations, which have so far failed to achieve a breakthrough.

"We hope that we will be allowed to go to Parchin and if access is granted we will welcome the chance to do so," Nackaerts told reporters. "We are ready to go."

The IAEA, whose mission it is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the world, has been trying for a year to negotiate a so-called structured approach with Tehran that would give it access to sites, officials and documents in Iran.

Both the IAEA and Tehran have said progress was made at their last meeting in the Iranian capital in mid-December, without giving details.

"We are aiming to finalise the structured approach to resolving the outstanding issues on the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program," Nackaerts said.

EU, Iran envoys discuss talks date

Meanwhile, diplomats said on Tuesday that a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers could still happen in January. The diplomats spoke after planning discussions between senior negotiators from the Islamic Republic and the European Union.

Western diplomats had hoped for negotiations - last held in June - to resume in December or mid-January in the face of increasing concern that the decade-long standoff could trigger a new war in the Middle East. But Iran did not respond to proposed dates in time, Western diplomats said.

Russia voiced alarm last week at delays in agreeing a new round of talks on Iran's atomic work, which the West suspects is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Iran says it is enriching uranium for solely peaceful energy purposes.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton oversees contacts on behalf of the six powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

On Monday, senior EU negotiator Helga Schmid spoke with Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri on the phone over when new talks might take place, a spokeswoman for Ashton said on Tuesday.

"Consultations to prepare a next round of talks are ongoing," Maja Kocijancic said. She did not give details of the talks or of possible dates.

Diplomats said negotiators were still hoping to resume talks in the coming weeks.

"The powers and Iran are still discussing possible dates for nuclear talks in January," one Western envoy said.

The six powers have used a mix of diplomacy and economic sanctions to try to persuade Tehran to scale back its nuclear work. However, three rounds of negotiations last year produced no breakthrough, with Iran demanding sanctions relief and international recognition of its right to enrich uranium.

A former Iranian nuclear negotiator has said Iran is ready to meet again "as soon as possible", but suggested that uncertainty in Tehran about what the other side would offer may make it reluctant to agree a new date now.

Some diplomats suggest Tehran may want to wait until after its meeting on Wednesday with the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency in Tehran - to discuss how to remove obstacles to an IAEA inquiry into alleged atomic bomb research by the Iranians - before setting a date for the talks with the powers.

The talks between the IAEA and Iran are separate from, but linked to, broader diplomacy by the six powers to resolve the dispute with Iran before it degenerates into war, feared because of Israeli threats to bomb Iranian nuclear sites.