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Written by: Staff

TOKYO, Feb 27 (Reuters) Japan is set to urge Iran to ease international concerns over its nuclear ambitions in order to avert United Nations sanctions during a three-day visit to Tokyo by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Mottaki arrived in Tokyo early today and is set to meet Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso later in the day.

His visit follows news on Sunday that Iran had reached a ''basic'' agreement with Russia on jointly enriching uranium, but there was no immediate sign that Tehran would suspend home-grown enrichment to allay fears that it was developing nuclear arms.

With time running out for Iran to avoid formal referral to the U.N. Security Council at a March 6 board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tokyo hopes to persuade Iran -- a major oil supplier -- to heed international calls to stop uranium enrichment-related activities.

''Our stance is that (Iran) needs to lend a little more ear to international opinion,'' Aso told a news conference last week.

Japan, which currently buys some 500,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil, has kept up good ties with the Islamic Republic, and Japanese officials have said this gives Tokyo a unique role to play in defusing the tensions.

An original Russian proposal had been for Iran's uranium to be enriched in Russia to defuse suspicions that Iran might divert some nuclear fuel into a weapons programme.

But Iran has insisted on its right to enrich uranium it mines in its central desert on its own soil, and it was unclear how the original Russian proposal could be altered to please Tehran.

Iran has already been reported to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions, after failing to convince the world that its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful. Tehran flatly denies trying to develop nuclear arms.

On March 6, the IAEA board will meet to discuss the U.N.

watchdog's latest report on Iran's nuclear programme. The report may determine whether the United States and European powers push the Security Council to impose sanctions.

The standoff has posed a dilemma for Japan, which wants to stay in diplomatic sync with the United States, its main security ally, and is also pursuing the development of an Iranian oil field seen by Tokyo as vital to its energy strategy.

Flying in the face of U.S. objections, Tokyo went ahead two years ago with a deal on a billion-dollar project to develop the Azadegan oil field in southern Iran, estimated to hold the world's second-biggest single oil reserves.

The Japanese government has a 36 percent stake in Japan's biggest oil developer, INPEX Corp., which is planning to develop the southern part of Azadegan, estimated to hold 26 billion barrels of oil.

The Azadegan development is one of the biggest foreign investments in Iran, and Japanese media have estimated that the project may cost up to $1.7 billion.

Reuters SK VP0722

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