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Iran nuclear visit 'is job for UN'

The European Union's foreign policy chief appeared to signal a rejection of Iran's invitation to visit its nuclear sites when she said the job should be done by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.

Labour peer Catherine Ashton said: "The inspection of nuclear sites is the job for the IAEA. We will be welcoming the fact that Iran is interested in having those visit at the sites, but the role and responsibility for doing that rests with the IAEA."

Iran has denied claims by other nations that its nuclear programme is aimed at producing weapons. But its refusal to co-operate with an IAEA probe into suspicions that it experimented with components of a nuclear weapons programme has heightened international concerns.

Meir Dagan, Israel's outgoing spy chief, was quoted by an Israeli newspaper yesterday as saying that Iran's nuclear programme had been delayed and predicting that the country would not have a nuclear weapon before 2015.

Iran recently invited Hungary, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, and several other countries including Russia, China and Cuba - but not the US - to tour its nuclear sites, suggesting January 15-16 for the trip.

Baroness Ashton, visiting Budapest with the rest of the EU's executive commission, said Iran was one of the subjects she discussed with Hungarian foreign minister Janos Martonyi, particularly the talks Iran is tentatively scheduled to hold on January 20 and 21 in Turkey with the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's nuclear department, said the invitation was aimed at greater transparency.

"On the eve of talks ... and as a gesture of goodwill, we have announced time and again that representatives of certain international communities and a number of countries can inspect Iran's nuclear installations," he told the official IRNA news agency in Tehran.

Talks in Geneva between Iran and these countries ended in December with agreement on little else but to meet again.

The Istanbul meeting aims to explore whether there is common ground for more substantive talks on Iran's nuclear programme, which is seen by the US and its allies as a cover for secret plans to make nuclear arms. Iran says its uranium enrichment and other programmes are meant for peaceful purposes only, to generate fuel for a future network of nuclear reactors.

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