Ashton and Zarif give a joint press conference following a meeting on March 9, 2014 in Tehran.
Ashton and Zarif give a joint press conference following a meeting on March 9, 2014 in Tehran. Photo by AFP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday lashed out at European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was visiting Iran on a landmark visit, just days after Israel raided an Iranian ship carrying missiles bound for Gaza.

"The goal of seizing the arms ship was to expose Iran's true face," Netanyahu told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "I say this in order to bring it to the attention of Ms. Ashton, who is now visiting Tehran, and I wish to ask her whether she asked her hosts about the shipment of weapons to terrorist organizations."

Ashton began discussions with the Iranian government in Tehran on Sunday, in her first visit to the country since assuming the post more than five years ago.

Her visit is seen as another sign of thaw in Iran's strained relations with the West since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rohani in June.

Ashton kicked off the visit meeting with Rohani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, with Iran's nuclear activities set to dominate discussions. The EU foreign policy chief was also scheduled to meet with feminist and rights activists during her visit, and to publicly condemn the crackdown on human rights in Iran.

Formal talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program are to be held March 17-20 in Vienna among Ashton, Zarif and the six world powers that struck a deal with Tehran in November.

Under the interim agreement, Iran agreed to freeze higher-level uranium enrichment in exchange for limited relief from Western sanctions over a six-month period while a final permanent agreement is being pursued.

The UN's nuclear watchdog gave its second positive assessment of Iran's compliance with the interim deal last month.

Ashton's predecessor, Javier Solana, traveled to Tehran in 2008.