Iran nuclear invitation draws Western skepticism

 Iran invited Russia, China, the European Union and others on Tuesday to visit key nuclear plants, but left out Britain, France, Germany and the United States -- the countries most opposed to its nuclear program.

Iran's surprise invitation to ambassadors accredited to the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna was a bid to show openness before Tehran and six world powers are due to meet in Istanbul later this month to discuss its disputed atomic activities.

The West suspects Iran's uranium enrichment program aims to make nuclear bombs while Tehran says it is for peaceful ends.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast attends his weekly news conference in Tehran in this December 14, 2010 file photo

None of the four major Western powers in diplomatic efforts to resolve the long-running dispute -- the United States, Britain, Germany and France -- received invitations.

The United States and Britain dismissed the Iranian move, as did Western analysts who viewed Tehran's gesture as a public relations exercise and said Iran would be more transparent if it gave international inspectors greater access to its sites.

"This is pretend transparency," said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington. "Taking a bunch of diplomats ... to see what you want them to see is not meaningful transparency."

Hungary, the current EU president, said it was invited. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has represented the bloc in negotiations so far, not the EU presidency holders.

"We are still trying to determine who is on Iran's invite list. We aren't," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told Reuters.

A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said neither the United States nor the EU3 -- European Union members Britain, France and Germany -- have been invited.

"A fair number of invitations have been issued. The pattern is clearer regarding who is not invited -- the U.S. and E3 -- than who is invited," said the U.S. official. "Hungary, invited as the EU presidency, has already declined."

The was no immediate confirmation from either Hungary or the EU on whether Hungary had turned down the invitation.

BRITAIN SKEPTICAL

Britain said "a tightly controlled visit of selected facilities was unlikely to provide the assurances needed by the international community" about Iran's nuclear plans.

China said it had been invited while a Vienna-based diplomat said Russia, the sixth big power involved in talks with Iran, was also believed to have received an invitation.

Egypt appeared to be the first to officially confirm it would accept Iran's invitation, with Hossam Zaki, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, saying it would take part.

A senior Western diplomat dismissed the planned trip as an Iranian stunt seeking to divert attention from its obligations under repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to suspend activity the West fears has military aims.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told a news conference the ambassadors would "possibly visit Iran and our nuclear facilities on January 15 and 16."

Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear body, said the plan was for the group to travel to the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor.

The two sites are at the heart of Iran's nuclear dispute with the West, which suspects the Islamic Republic is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies this.

"Ambassadors ... are invited to visit our nuclear sites, particularly in Natanz and Arak," Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Reuters in Vienna. "This is in the line of our transparent nuclear policy," he said, adding that meetings with high-ranking Iranian officials would also be organized.

Tehran and the powers agreed in Geneva last month to meet again in Istanbul in late January. The Geneva talks were the first in more than a year and also the first since tougher U.N., U.S., and EU sanctions were imposed on Iran in mid-2010.

But the Geneva meeting made no substantial progress toward finding a solution to the nuclear row. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful electricity production and has rejected international demands to curb it.

source AFP

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