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VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran is refusing to significantly cut the number of centrifuges it intends to keep to produce nuclear fuel, making it hard to imagine a compromise at this week's talks with six powers, Western and Iranian officials said on Wednesday.
The remarks from diplomats close to the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, came after the initial rounds of meetings in the Austrian capital between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia plus Germany.
They are striving for a deal that would limit Iran's nuclear programme, subject it to stricter U.N. inspections, lift sanctions impairing Iran's oil-based economy and remove the risk of a wider Middle East war over the dispute.
But with time running out if a precarious extension of the talks past the self-imposed July 20 deadline is to be averted, the two sides remain far apart over the permissible future scope of Iranian nuclear activity.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome, six-power diplomats said, is Iran's stance regarding its uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which one negotiator described as a "huge problem".
Centrifuges are machines that spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of the fissile isotope in uranium. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated goal, but can also provide material for bombs if refined much further, which the West fears may be Iran's latent goal.
"The Iranians have not yet shown a willingness to reduce their centrifuges to an acceptable number, making it difficult to envision a compromise at this point that we could all live with," the negotiator told Reuters. Another Western official close to the talks confirmed the remarks as accurate.
A senior Iranian official seemed to confirm the assessment.
"Our Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) has set a red line for the negotiators and that cannot change and should be respected," he told Reuters. "Uranium enrichment should be continued and none of the nuclear sites will be closed.
"What the West offers Iran on the number of centrifuges is like a joke and unacceptable," he continued. "However, negotiation means trying to overcome disputes and it is what both sides are doing."A senior U.S. official said on Monday that all disagreements must be cleared up for a long-term settlement with Iran to be clinched. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."