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Tour of Iranian nuclear sites begins without Western diplomats

Foreign diplomats began a tour of Iran's atomic sites at Tehran's invitation. But Russia, China and European nations refused to take part in the trip, saying international inspectors should decide when visits occur.

Atom symbol over Iran flag

Iran has pitched the visit as a gesture of goodwill

Seven envoys of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began a two-day tour of Iran's atomic sites on Saturday. Representatives from China and Russia, which typically have close ties to Iran, turned down the invitation, as did the European Union.

The EU said the IAEA "are the people who have to inspect the Iranian nuclear facilities."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that while Iran's invitation "deserved attention," such a trip could not replace IAEA inspections.

Iran had invited several envoys to the Vienna-based IAEA as well as Hungary, the holder of the European Union's rotating presidency, to take part in a tour of its main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and the heavy water installation in Arak.

International sanctions

"The recent sanctions did not create any problems for our nuclear activities," atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference in Arak.

an Iranian nuclear power station

Western powers suspect Iran wants to build a nuclear bomb

His comments came as a reaction to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying Iran's nuclear program was being hampered by international sanctions.

"Our nuclear activities are going forward strongly," Salehi said. "The production of enriched uranium is growing."

Tehran said the tour is a sign of goodwill and proof that its nuclear activities serve civilian purposes. Western governments have accused Tehran of enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

However, critics see the tour as a bid to drum up support for its contentious nuclear program and split the powers responsible for nuclear negotiations with Tehran. The United States, Britain, France and Germany were not invited to take part in the tour. The four countries along with Russia and China are responsible for negotiations concerning Iran's nuclear program.

'Historic opportunity'

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, said the EU had missed a "historic opportunity."

The seven envoys taking part in the tour hail from Algeria, Cuba, Egypt, Oman, Syria, Venezuela and the Arab League.

Iran, which is currently under four sets of UN sanctions over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, last arranged a trip for members of the IAEA in February 2007. Only diplomats from developing nations were invited on that tour.

The invitation comes ahead of a planned meeting with six world powers at the end of next week in Turkey chaired by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The previous round of talks, held after a 14-month hiatus, took place in Geneva in early December.

Author: Sarah Harman (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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