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Written by: Staff
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LONDON, July 5 (Reuters) Oil steadied well above $73 on Wednesday after crucial talks between OPEC producer Iran and the European Union, on incentives to end a stand-off over Tehran's nuclear programme, were put off for a week.

A row between Iran and the West over Tehran's atomic ambitions helped drive prices to a record $75.35 in April as investors feared potential supply disruptions from the world's fourth biggest crude exporter.

''From the oil market's perspective, the intensity of the confrontation has not changed,'' said Michael Wittner of Calyon investment bank.

''We're not closer to a resolution of the crisis, but it hasn't escalated. We're trapped in no man's land.'' EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana had been due to meet Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani on Wednesday.

''The meeting has changed to the next week. They (the Iranian delegation) will not come (to Brussels) today,'' a senior Iranian nuclear official who requested anonymity told Reuters.

Lingering concern over Iran and still robust consumption in the United States and China, the world's biggest fuel burners, have put oil within striking distance of its earlier record.

U.S. light crude shed 24 cents to $73.69 a barrel, lagging Brent's loss of almost $1.00 in thin trading over NYMEX's two-day Independence Day closure on Monday and Tuesday.

London Brent crude traded up 30 cents at $72.81 a barrel by 1013 GMT.

NORTH KOREA LAUNCHES MISSILES Wednesday also saw geopolitical tensions heightened after North Korea launched a series of missiles into the Japan Sea.

The missiles included a long-range one able to reach Alaska, although it apparently failed 40 seconds into its flight, U.S.

officials said.

U.S. crude rallied more than $3 a barrel last week as U.S.

drivers hit the roads for the summer holidays.

''After gasoline inventories began to fall last week the key focus is now where they go this week,'' said Gerard Burg, energy economist at the National Australia Bank.

''The market wants to see if stocks are adequate to get through the summer driving season, especially as supply could be disrupted by more hurricanes.'' The next snapshot on U.S. fuel inventories will be released on Thursday, a day later than usual because of the Independence Day break.

Analysts expect to see a strong draw on stocks despite near-record prices. U.S. unleaded gasoline prices rose nearly 7 cents to average $2.93 a gallon last week, just below the record of $3.056, the Energy Information Administration said on Monday.

Providing some relief from supply concerns, Iraq said it planned to invite international oil companies to help develop its giant oilfields before the end of this year.

Iraq, home to the world's third-biggest oil reserves which are estimated at 115 billion barrels, needs up to $20 billion in foreign investment to boost production.

REUTERS CS DS1618

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