BRUSSELS/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The European Union, Russia and China should reject Iran’s invitation to visit its atomic sites this month just ahead of key talks, since that is a job for the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Western diplomats said on Wednesday.
Several Western diplomats in New York, among them European officials, said on condition of anonymity that Moscow and Beijing were being actively discouraged from attending since it could undermine the united front of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany on Iran’s nuclear issue.
“We would be disappointed if Russia, or China or the European Union were to go,” said a senior Western diplomat in New York.
“Some may want to go,” the diplomat added. “We certainly would not be encouraging people to go. Indeed we would be discouraging people from going.”
Other diplomats confirmed that Moscow and China were being urged not to attend but said it was unclear whether Russian and Chinese delegates would go. Russia and China have reluctantly supported four rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program but worked hard to water them down.
Other invitees included Brazil and Turkey, which voted against a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran in June. Countries like the United States, Britain, France and Japan, which voted for the sanctions, did not receive invitations.
The European Commission said it had yet to reply to the invitation sent to some ambassadors, including the EU’s, accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, weeks before a second round of talks between Iran and six world powers on its disputed nuclear ambitions.
That second round of talks is tentatively scheduled for January 21, Western diplomats in New York said.
A December 27 letter from Iran’s IAEA Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh to Hungary, which holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU, invited the Hungarian IAEA envoy “to pay a visit to Iran’s nuclear sites” on January 15-16.
“Meeting with high-ranking officials during the visit to Iran is envisaged,” said Soltanieh’s letter, which was seen by Reuters. “The round-trip tickets, transportation, accommodation shall be arranged and paid for by my government.”
The EU said inspections should be carried out by specialists from the IAEA, not by national ambassadors to the agency who were invited by Tehran.
“We haven’t answered the letter,” a European Commission spokesman told a regular news briefing on Wednesday, after being asked if the EU had accepted or rejected Tehran’s offer.
“But what we want to underline is that there is a process going on and it is for the IAEA to inspect the Iranian nuclear facilities ... . They have people to inspect them.”
Hungary, which holds the EU presidency through June 30, said EU governments would prepare a joint response with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The bloc’s hesitation to quickly accept the offer raised the possibility it would decline. Diplomats in New York said it was highly unlikely that the EU would agree to go on the trip.
The letter did not say who else had been invited. But diplomats said other invitees included China, Russia, Egypt, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Algeria, Turkey and the Arab League. Among those not invited were Australia, the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan, the envoys said.
Iran’s invitation raised questions in the West as to whether it constituted a genuine step toward more nuclear transparency or a public relations stunt meant to divide major powers and buy time for further atomic advances.
The United States and Britain — two of the major Western powers engaged in diplomacy to resolve the row over Iran’s intentions — dismissed the gesture.
Britain said “a tightly controlled visit of selected facilities is unlikely to provide the assurances needed by the international community” about Iran’s nuclear plans.
One European diplomat told Reuters that it was an attempt to split the six powers that have been trying for years to persuade Tehran to halt its uranium enrichment program in exchange for an offer of economic and political incentives.
The West suspects Iran’s nuclear program is directed at developing bombs. Tehran says it is for peaceful energy only and has pressed ahead with the program despite U.N. sanctions.
The IAEA has repeatedly said that Iran’s refusal to allow unfettered inspections beyond declared nuclear sites has prevented it from confirm that Iran’s program is peaceful.