Iran has invited Russia, China, the European Union and its allies among the Arab and developing world to tour its nuclear sites, in an apparent move to gain support ahead of a new round of talks with six world powers. In a letter made available Monday to The Associated Press, senior Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh suggests the weekend of Jan. 15 and 16 and says that meetings "with high ranking officials" are envisaged.
While no reason was given for the timing of the offer, it comes just weeks before Iran and the six powers follow up on recent talks that ended with agreement on little else but to meet again.
The new round between Tehran, and the permanent UN Security Council members - the U.S. Russia, China, Britain, France - plus Germany, is tentatively set for Istanbul, Turkey in late January.
It is meant to explore whether there is common ground for more substantive talks on Iran's nuclear program, viewed by the U.S, and its allies as a cover for secret plans to make nuclear arms - something Tehran denies.
Instead, the Islamic Republic insists its uranium enrichment and other programs are meant only to generate fuel for a future network of nuclear reactors.
Diplomats from delegations at the table with Iran during the December talks in Geneva said Tehran made no commitments to talking about UN Security Council demands that it freezes uranium enrichment - which can turn out both fuel and fissile warhead material. And Iranian negotiators flatly ruled out discussing such demands at the Istanbul meeting.
International worries are great because Tehran developed its enrichment program clandestinely and because it refuses to cooperate with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency probe meant to follow up on suspicions that it experimented with components of a nuclear weapons program. Tehran denies such work.
The offer of a visit comes more than three years after six diplomats from developing nations accredited to the IAEA visited Iran's uranium ore conversion site at Isfahan, which turns raw uranium into the feedstock gas that is then enriched. Participants then told reporters they could not make an assessment of Iran's nuclear aims based on that visit to that facility in central Iran.
But the new offer appeared more wide ranging, both as far as nations or groups invited and sites to be visited.
Dated Dec. 27, the four paragraph letter obtained Monday by the AP offered no details beyond offering an all-expenses paid "visit to Iran's nuclear sites."
But a diplomat familiar with its contents said it was mailed to Russia, China, Egypt, the group of nonaligned nations at the IAEA, Cuba, Arab League members at the IAEA and Hungary, as the president of the rotating EU presidency.
The U.S. was not among those invited. China, and to a lesser degree Russia, have acted to dilute originally harsh sanctions measures proposed by the U.S. and its Western Security Council allies, Britain and France, leading to compromise penalties enacted by the council that are milder than the West had originally hoped for.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said in response to reports ot the letter that Iran's continued enrichment activities are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and demonstrate Iran's disregard for its international obligations regarding its nuclear program.
"Acts such as Iran's invitation to several countries to tour its facilities are not a substitute for Iran fulfilling its obligations to cooperate with the IAEA and will not divert attention away from the core issues regarding Iran's nuclear program," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
The diplomat, who is accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency, also told the AP that Bushehr and Natanz were the venues to be toured and that meetings were planned with acting Foreign Minister Ali Salehi, the head of Iran's atomic agency and Saeed Jalili, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator. He asked for anonymity because his information is privileged.