WASHINGTON - The White House on Tuesday called the UN nuclear watchdog's progress toward an inspection agreement with Iran a step forward but said it would keep pressuring Tehran until there were concrete actions to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

"Promises are one thing, actions and fulfillment of obligations are another," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, speaking on the eve of major power talks with Iran in Baghdad over a program the West says is aimed at acquiring an atom bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier announced it was close to a deal to unblock monitoring of Iran's suspected work on a nuclear weapon, a positive sign one day before the six big powers meet Iran's security council chief.

"The announcement today is a step forward. It's an agreement in principle. It represents a step in the right direction," Carney said. However, he also spelled out that it was premature to discuss easing sanctions, including on Iran's vital oil exports, which are due to take force in July.

Washington views the sanctions as crucial in getting Iran back to the table to discuss its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is purely for peaceful purposes. The crisis has vexed global financial markets and pushed up the price of oil.

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"We will continue to pressure Tehran, continue to move forward with the sanctions that will be coming online as the year progresses," Carney told a news briefing.

"We expect those to have the kind of effect on Iran in terms of making it clear to the regime what the price of continued failure to meet its obligations will mean," he said.

The Baghdad talks will test Iran's willingness to curb its nuclear program in a transparent way, but the West remains wary of past Iranian tactics that have undermined IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities.

"We're not at the stage of negotiating what Iran would get in return for fulfillment of its obligations beyond the general principle, which is they would be able to rejoin the community of nations," Carney said in answer to a question about what Tehran has to do to get the sanctions eased.

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