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VIENNA/DUBAI (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear agency is talking with Iran to set a date for discussions on resuming an investigation there, it said on Monday, as Washington stressed the importance of diplomacy in ending a standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which wants to restart a long-stalled inquiry into suspected atomic bomb research, issued a brief statement after Iranian media reported that talks were set for May 21.
The IAEA has been trying for more than a year to coax Iran into granting IAEA officials the access they want. Western diplomats accuse Iran of stonewalling and some say the IAEA may soon need to get tougher with the Islamic Republic.
Asked about the Iranian media reports, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in an email: "I can confirm we are discussing possible dates of a meeting with Iran."
Iran's Mehr and ISNA news agencies initially reported that the meeting would be held on May 21, but ISNA later quoted an unnamed official as saying this was only a "preliminary agreement" and that the date could be moved by one or two days.
The IAEA-Iran talks are separate from, but have an important bearing on, diplomatic negotiations between Tehran and six world powers aimed at a broad settlement to the decade-old dispute and reduce the risk of a new Middle East war.
Western powers suspect Iran is trying to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons under the guise of a declared civilian atomic energy programme. Iran denies this, saying it seeks only electricity and medical applications from uranium enrichment.
But its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear activity with both civilian and military applications and its lack of openness with IAEA inspectors have drawn U.N. and Western sanctions.
Israel, widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, has long hinted at possible air strikes to deny Iran any means to make an atomic bomb.
But the Jewish state suggested on Monday it would be patient before taking any military action against Iran's nuclear sites, saying during a visit by U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel there was still time for other options.
Thomas Countryman, U.S. assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, told reporters in Geneva that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran was "a threat to the entire region and an impetus for greater proliferation," but he stressed the value of diplomacy.
"The fact is that it is concerted international diplomatic action with the full range of diplomatic tools, including strong economic sanctions, that have brought Iran to the negotiating table," Countryman told a news conference.
"They have not yet succeeded in getting Iran to negotiate seriously on the world's concerns, but they have brought us to the table."
Some analysts and diplomats say Iran's leadership may be unwilling or unable to make important decisions in nuclear negotiations before its presidential election in June.
If the Iran-IAEA meeting were to take place, it would be the 10th between the two sides since early 2012, so far without a deal that would enable the U.N. watchdog to gain access to sites, documents and officials for the inquiry.
Officials at Iran's IAEA mission were not immediately available for comment. The last round of IAEA-Iran negotiations, in February, yielded no breakthrough.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)