Middle East

Iran invites foreign diplomats to nuclear sites

Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, file pic
Image caption Diplomats will be shown Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, reports say

Iran has invited foreign diplomats to tour its nuclear facilities, ahead of fresh talks with key world powers over its controversial nuclear programme.

The offer was reportedly extended to Russia, China and several EU countries, but not the US.

US State Department spokesman, Philip J Crowley, has dismissed the offer as a "clever ploy".

Many Western countries suspect Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its programme is peaceful.

US 'snub'

"The representatives of some European Union countries, NAM [Non-Aligned Movement], and some representatives of the five-plus-one [world powers] have been invited to visit our nuclear sites," foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters.

He said the invitation was part of the Islamic republic's attempt to demonstrate "co-operation with the IAEA", referring to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

China, a close economic ally of Iran, has confirmed it was among the invitees, but foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei did not say whether any of its diplomats would go.

Asked specifically whether a US representative would be invited, Mr Mehmanparast said in Tehran: "The list of the countries invited for the visit will be unveiled when it is finalised."

But the New York Times reports that the invitation has "pointedly snubbed" the United States, citing European diplomats close to the negotiations.

Washington, which has been spearheading the campaign for sanctions against Iran, swiftly dismissed the offer.

"It's a clever ploy, but it's not a substitute for Iran's responsibilities to the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA," Mr Crowley told the New York Times.

Rare visit

Tehran is already subject to inspections by the IAEA, but it would appear that this tour may be aimed at diplomats, not inspectors, says the BBC's Iran correspondent James Reynolds.

The last such trip which Tehran arranged was in February 2007.

Mr Mehmanparast said the visit would take place ahead of a second round of talks on Tehran's nuclear programme, scheduled for late January in Istanbul, Turkey, although no date has been confirmed.

Iran is set to hold talks with the five permanent UN Security Council members - the US, Russia, China, the UK and France - plus Germany.

The talks will follow a two-day meeting in Geneva early last month which EU foreign affairs chief Baroness Ashton described as "substantive", though little was agreed beyond a commitment to meet again. Those were the first talks in over 14 months.

Nuclear sites

Mr Mehmanparast did not say which nuclear facilities the envoys would travel to, but the AP news agency said Bushehr and Natanz were on the list, citing a diplomat accredited to the IAEA.

While Bushehr has been built under IAEA supervision, the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz is at the heart of Iran's dispute with the UN Security Council.

Last year, Iran told the IAEA that Natanz would be the venue for new enrichment facilities - construction of which would start around March 2011.

The UN is concerned because the technology used for producing fuel for nuclear power can be used to enrich the uranium to a much higher level to produce a nuclear explosion.

The IAEA has voiced growing frustration at what it sees as lack of Iranian co-operation with its inspectors.

The UN Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran and demanded that it stops its uranium enrichment programme.

Iranian negotiators have flatly ruled out discussing such demands at the Istanbul meeting.

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