VIENNA Iran has invited the U.N. nuclear watchdog to visit for talks and would be ready to discuss concerns about its disputed atomic ambitions, an Iranian envoy told Reuters Tuesday.
The conciliatory gesture comes as Iran faces tightening sanctions over a nuclear program it says is for peaceful power generation but its foes suspect is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
Western diplomats tend to see such invitations as attempts by Iran, a major oil producer, to buy time and ease international pressure without heeding U.N. demands to curb nuclear work which could be used for making atomic bombs.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran's ambassador to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran on December 9 sent a letter to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, who last month issued a report pointing to military links to the country's atomic work.
The letter, Soltanieh said, renewed an invitation from October for a team of senior IAEA officials to travel to Iran, including chief inspector Herman Nackaerts.
"I have also had discussions with the officials of the agency and we are planning for the visit," Soltanieh said.
Amano has made clear that any new IAEA visit to Tehran must address its growing concerns about potential military aims of the nuclear program, which Iran says is strictly peaceful.
Asked whether Iran would be willing to discuss such issues, Soltanieh said: "We are going to discuss any questions and to work toward removing the ambiguities and resolving the issue."
He said the U.N. agency had given a positive response to the invitation. There was no immediate comment from the IAEA.
A senior Western diplomat had earlier said Iran's offer of talks included no promise that discussions would cover issues raised in the IAEA's November 8 report, which said Iran appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon.
"Apparently the Iranians have invited agency officials, but the offer is clearly just part of their amateurish charm offensive," the diplomat said. There is "no commitment to talk substance ... same old movie."
NO TALKS ABOUT TALKS
A second Vienna-based diplomat said the IAEA and Tehran had been in contact about a possible visit which could take place early next year. If agreed, this could be "good news," he added.
Western countries seized on last month's IAEA report, which said secret weapons-relevant research may continue in Iran, to ratchet up economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
In the latest such move, the U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday it was expanding sanctions to include 10 "shipping and front companies and one individual based in Malta" affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.
In Rome, diplomats from a so-called "group of like-minded nations" met to discuss further punitive steps against Iran. The meeting would consider arguments around a possible European Union oil embargo against the country.
Previous visits to Iran by senior IAEA officials have failed to make significant progress toward resolving the long-running row over Iran's nuclear program, a dispute which has the potential to spark a wider conflict in the Middle East.
Nackaerts, head of IAEA nuclear safeguards inspections worldwide, was granted rare access to a facility for developing advanced uranium enrichment machines when he visited in August.
But there was no apparent progress on the military issue.
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, wrote to the IAEA in October suggesting that an IAEA delegation headed by Nackaerts should visit again.
But Iran's angry response to the IAEA report cast doubt on those plans. Soltanieh said last month that "everything is messed up" by the U.N. agency document, which gave unprecedented detail about allegations of suspected military aspects.
Tuesday he said Iran was showing its "good will" by renewing the invitation. The purpose would be to "to work to remove any ambiguities with the aim of resolving the issues and to conclude and stop this endless process," Soltanieh said.
Another Western diplomat in Vienna said Amano would probably only agree to send his officials to Tehran in order to specifically discuss military concerns. "I don't think they want to have talks about talks," the envoy said.
(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Jon Boyle)