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EU rejects Iran's offer of atomic site tour: Ashton
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The European Union has turned down an offer from Iran to tour its nuclear facilities, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said on Friday, but remains optimistic about talks with Tehran later this month.
Iran has sent letters to a number of ambassadors to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, inviting them to visit two sites -- the Natanz uranium enrichment plant and the Arak heavy water complex -- in the coming weeks.
Diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the United States were not invited. But Hungary, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union until July, was invited, leaving the EU in a quandary over what to do.
"What I'll be saying is the role of the inspections of nuclear sites is for the IAEA and I do hope Iran will ensure that the IAEA is able to go and continue and fulfil its work," Ashton told Reuters after talks with Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, saying the invitation would be declined.
While the United States and the three EU powers most involved in applying pressure on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment were snubbed by Tehran, Russia and China, which are also involved in sporadic nuclear talks with Iran, were invited.
Ashton said she had consulted with Russia and China before deciding that the invitation should not be accepted.
"I obviously coordinated with the other members of the E3+3 (six powers) who were invited. My view is that though this is not an invitation that I'm taking a negative view of, it's not our job, and looking at the sites and establishing what they are requires expertise," Ashton said, referring to IAEA inspectors.
The West suspects Iran's nuclear program is directed at developing bombs. Tehran says it is for peaceful energy only.
IRAN SAYS INVITATION ACCEPTED BY MOST ENVOYS
In Vienna, Iran's envoy to the IAEA told Reuters most of the ambassadors accredited to the U.N. nuclear watchdog who were invited, from "north, south, east, west" alike, had confirmed they would take part, but he did not identify them.
"We welcome all friends to come together in the most transparent manner to see our nuclear installations and this is a very positive initiative from Iran," Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Reuters. He declined comment on Ashton's remarks, saying he had not received a formal answer from the EU.
Western diplomats have described Iran's invitation as an attempt to split the six world powers and weaken international sanctions slapped on Tehran over its secretive activity.
Russia and China have tended to take a softer line on Iran. Both have yet to respond publicly to Tehran's invitation.
Western diplomats had said on Wednesday that Russia and China were being actively discouraged from going on the tour as this could erode the united front of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany on Iran's nuclear dossier.
In an interview with an Iranian news agency published before Ashton's comments, Iran's acting foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi said the invitation was meant as a "goodwill gesture" to counter "lies propagated by some non-benevolent countries regarding Iran's nuclear activities...."
Israeli intelligence assessments released on Friday said Israel believes Iran, its arch-foe, will not be able to produce an atom bomb before 2015. [ID:nLDE7060CM] That extended timeline would allay fears of pre-emptive military strikes on Iran and provide more time to work out a diplomatic solution.
Ashton did not say whether she regarded Iran's invitation as a gambit to divide the six powers but said it would not hinder nuclear talks she is shepherding with the Islamic Republic.
"It is not a roadblock at all. We have the dates for the (next) talks, we begin on the evening of January 20 and have two days, or at least one and a half days, which is extremely positive." The talks are scheduled to take place in Istanbul and will be attended by representatives of the six powers, she said.
"I'm looking forward to the talks with Iran... The Iranians have been helpful in supplying the dates and making that work... We're working now on what we should do in terms of substance."
Other invitees for the tour included Egypt, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Algeria and the Arab League, diplomats said. Cuba and Venezuela are allies of Iran, while Turkey and Brazil have tried to mediate in Iran's standoff with big powers.
(Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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