BAGHDAD - Iran and world powers agreed to meet again next month to try to ease the long standoff over its nuclear work despite achieving scant progress at talks in Baghdad towards resolving the main sticking points of their dispute.
At its heart is Iran's insistence on right to enrich uranium and that economic sanctions should be lifted before it shelves activities that could lead to its achieving the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
Western powers insist Tehran must first shut down higher-grade enrichment before sanctions could be eased.
But both sides have powerful reasons not to abandon diplomacy. The powers want to avert the danger of a new Middle East war raised by Israeli threats to bomb Iran, while Tehran also wants to avoid a looming Western ban on its oil exports.
After discussions in Baghdad extended late into an unscheduled second day on Thursday between envoys from Iran and the six powers, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said it was clear both sides wanted progress and had some common ground, but significant differences remained.
"We will maintain intensive contacts with our Iranian counterparts to prepare a further meeting in Moscow," she told a news conference in Baghdad.
The next meeting, the third in the latest round of talks that began in Istanbul last month after a diplomatic vacuum of 15 months, will be held in Moscow on June 18-19.
Ashton leads the negotiations for the six-country group made up of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - which together with Germany is known as the P5+1.
"Talks were intensive and long," Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator and direct representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said. "They were detailed, but left unfinished.
"The atmosphere of these talks was positive for the two sides to talk about their issues in a clear way," Jalili added. "We believe the result of these talks was that we were able to get to know each other's views better and more."
While there was little if any concrete progress, the fact that the two sides agreed to continue talks was a sign of progress in itself, after more than a year of not meeting at all before the latest round of negotiations began in April.
"The two sides' commitment to diplomacy in the absence of any clear agreement is a positive sign," said Ali Vaez, Iran expert at the International Crisis Group think-tank.
"All parties should be commended for returning to the negotiating table. (U.S. President Barack) Obama should be commended for having turned diplomacy into a process rather than the one-off meetings that existed in the past," wrote Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
"Both sides entered negotiations with their maximalist positions, and neither budged. Looking ahead, now the hard work begins."
Iran, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, says it is enriching uranium only in order to generate electricity to serve the needs of a burgeoning population, and for a medical research reactor.
The sceptical powers want practical steps from the Islamic Republic to address their concerns over its nuclear programme.
Chief among such concerns is Iran's ability to enrich uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent. That is the nuclear advance most worrying to the West since it opens the way to reaching 90 percent, or bomb-grade, enrichment.
"Iran declared its readiness to address the issue of 20 percent enrichment and came with its own five-point plan, including their assertion that we recognise their right to enrichment," Ashton said.