Iran Invites European, Arab Nations – but Not U.S. – to Tour Its Nuclear Facilities

January 4, 2011 - 6:44 AM

Tehran, Iran (AP) - The Tehran government confirmed on Tuesday that it has invited world powers and its allies in the Arab and developing world to tour Iranian nuclear sites before a high-profile meeting late January on its disputed nuclear program.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the invitation went to "the E.U, the non-aligned movement and representatives from 5+1 countries."

The "5+1" countries are the six world powers negotiationing with Iran over its nuclear program: the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- plus Germany.

Mehmanparast said Iran would identify the invited countries at a later time, but it appears the "5+1" were invited as a group and not as individual nations. A diplomat familiar with the invitation said the U.S. -- the greatest critic of Iran's nuclear ambitions -- was not invited.

Mehmanparast said the invitation was a sign of Iran's "good will" and greater transparency about its nuclear program. Iran insists its nuclear program is designed to generate power, but the West suspects that's just a cover to build bombs.

On Monday, The Associated Press reported the invitation, citing a letter from a senior Iranian envoy that suggested the weekend of Jan. 15 and 16 for the tour.

Mehmanparast did not give a firm date, but said the tour would take place before the January talks.

The new round of negotiations is meant to explore whether there is common ground for more substantive talks on Iran's nuclear program. A round of talks in Geneva in December yielded no breakthrough.

The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran freeze uranium enrichment -- a process that can produce both fuel and fissile warhead material. But Iranian negotiators flatly ruled out discussing such demands at the Istanbul meeting.

The offer of a visit comes more than three years after six diplomats from developing nations visited Iran's uranium ore conversion site at Isfahan, which turns raw uranium into the gas that is then fed into enriching centrifuges. Participating diplomats told reporters they could not assess Iran's nuclear aims based on what they saw there.

The new offer appeared more wide ranging, both in terms of who was invited and sites to be visited.

Dated Dec. 27, the four-paragraph letter 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 U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, Cuba, Arab League members at the IAEA, and Hungary, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

China, and to a lesser degree Russia, have acted to dilute harsh sanctions proposed by the U.S. and its Western allies on the Security Council, leading to compromise penalties enacted by the council that are milder than the West had originally hoped.

The outreach to Moscow and Beijing in Tehran's offer to visit appeared to be an attempt to leverage any differences between the Eastern and Western powers meeting the Iranians in Istanbul.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei acknowledged that Beijing has received an invitation and hopes the dispute over Iran's nuclear program would be resolved through dialogue.