The European Union was debating, on 5 January, whether to accept an offer to visit two of Iran's nuclear facilities as it prepares to hold further talks with Tehran at the end of the month. Letters were sent to the Hungarian Presidency of the European Council and to High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton inviting them to tour the Natanz and the Arak nuclear plants, it emerged on 4 January, but the EU refused to confirm whether it would attend what the United States, which was not invited, was already dubbing a "magical mystery tour".

"A letter was sent to a number of different delegations, including Madame Ashton," confirmed European Commission spokesman Michael Mann, but he refused to comment on whether she intended to accept. "I am not aware of a formal response at this stage," he said. The Hungarian Presidency confirmed it had also received an invitation and was consulting with EU colleagues, including Ashton, about its response.

The European Union has had a high-profile role in the international efforts to exert pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme, with Ashton representing the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany in talks with Tehran in Geneva in December, which will continue in Istanbul at the end of January. In her first year in office, Ashton has tended to keep fairly closely in step with the United States' position on Middle Eastern politics, presenting Tehran with a slightly more friendly face than Washington DC but remaining essentially in agreement with their stance. She may also therefore dismiss the Iranian offer as a distraction from the ongoing talks.


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