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EU says up to U.N. to inspect Iran's nuclear

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s executive said on Wednesday it was up to the U.N. nuclear watchdog to inspect Iranian atomic facilities, after Tehran invited EU envoys to tour the sites this month.

A woman enters the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters at the UN premises in Vienna, December 2, 2010. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

The European Commission said it had yet to reply to the invitation sent to some ambassadors, including the EU’s, accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, weeks before a second round of talks between Iran and six world powers on its disputed nuclear ambitions.

Iran invited the EU as well as China, Russia and others to visit, in a move that raised questions in the West as to whether it constituted a genuine step towards more nuclear transparency or a public relations stunt meant to divide major powers and buy time for further atomic advances.

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

The United States and Britain -- two of the major Western powers engaged in diplomacy to resolve the row over Iran’s intentions -- dismissed the gesture. Neither of the two powers, nor France, were invited on the tour, according to diplomats.

The EU said inspections should be carried out by specialists from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), rather than ambassadors to the U.N. watchdog who were invited by Tehran.

“We haven’t answered the letter,” a European Commission spokesman told a regular news briefing on Wednesday, after being asked whether the EU had accepted or rejected Tehran’s offer.

“But what we want to underline is that there is a process going on and it is for the IAEA to inspect the Iranian nuclear facilities ... They have people to inspect them.”

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Hungary, which was included in the Iranian offer and holds the rotating presidency of the 27-member bloc until the end of June, said EU governments would prepare a joint response with the EU high representative for foreign policy Catherine Ashton.

But the bloc’s hesitation to quickly accept the offer raised the possibility it would decline.

“We are in consultation, I mean all member states, with the high representative and the common position will be announced as soon as it is developed,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told reporters in Budapest.

Ashton was travelling to Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday and Thursday.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the ambassadors were invited to travel to the country before Tehran and six world powers are due to meet in Istanbul at the end of January.

But Britain said “a tightly controlled visit of selected facilities is unlikely to provide the assurances needed by the international community” about Iran’s nuclear plans.

IAEA inspectors regularly check Iranian nuclear facilities such as Natanz -- the uranium enrichment site which is on the agenda of the proposed ambassadors’ tour -- to ensure that they are not being covertly used to make nuclear weapons.

But the IAEA says Iran’s refusal to allow unfettered inspections beyond declared nuclear sites, as called for by the agency’s Additional Protocol, means it cannot confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is for peaceful activities.

The agency is increasingly frustrated at what it sees as Iran’s lack of cooperation, including its stonewalling of an IAEA probe into whether it may be working to develop a nuclear warhead. Iran says it is not doing so, but has not granted the IAEA access to people and venues to back up its denials.

Western governments have repeatedly urged Iran to open up completely to the IAEA to dispel mistrust.

Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Budapest, Charlie Dunmore in Brussels and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by Andrew Roche