EU to reject Iran offer on nuclear sites: Ashton

The European Union will turn down an offer from Iran to tour its nuclear facilities, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said on Friday.

“What I’ll be saying is the role of the inspections of nuclear sites is for the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and I do hope Iran will insure that the IAEA is able to go and continue and fulfill its work,” she told Reuters after talks with Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi.

Hungary, which holds the presidency of the EU for the next six months, had been invited by Iran in its European leadership role to visit some nuclear sites in the coming weeks.

Britain, France and Germany, among the six world powers involved in sporadic talks with Iran over its disputed uranium enrichment program, were not invited, and neither was the United States. Iran did invite Russia and China.

The West suspects Iran’s nuclear program is directed at developing bombs. Tehran says it is for peaceful energy only.

Ashton said she had consulted with Russia and China before taking the decision that the invitation should be turned down.

“I obviously coordinated with the other members of the E3+3 who were invited. My view is that though this is not an invitation that I’m taking a negative view of, it’s not our job, and looking at the sites and establishing what they are requires expertise,” Ashton said, referring to the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Western diplomats have described Iran’s invitation as an attempt to split the six powers — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — to weaken punitive sanctions against Tehran over its secretive nuclear activity. Russia and China have tended to take a softer line on Iran.

Western diplomats had said on Wednesday that the EU, Russia and China should reject Iran’s invitation. They said Moscow and Beijing were being actively discouraged from going on the tour as this could erode the united front of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany on Iran’s nuclear dossier.

Ashton did not say whether she regarded Iran’s move as an attempt to divide the group, known as the E3+3, but said the invitation would not hinder nuclear talks she is involved in with the Islamic Republic.

“It is not a roadblock at all. We have the dates for the (next) talks, we begin on the evening of January 20 and have two days, or at least one and a half days, which is extremely positive.”

The talks are scheduled to take place in Istanbul and will be attended by representatives of the six powers, she said.

“I’m looking forward to the talks with Iran, that’s my job.

“The Iranians have been helpful in supplying the dates and making that work… we’re working now on what we should do in terms of substance.”