Iran opens military base, calls for nuclear talks

TEHRAN - Iran sought to defuse tensions over its nuclear programme today, confirming it had let UN inspectors visit a military complex and calling for a revival of European Union talks on the issue.

The official IRNA news agency said Iran had written to Britain, France and Germany, calling for the resumption of negotiations which broke down in August.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could, when it meets this month, discuss sending Iran's nuclear case to the UN Security Council, where Tehran could face sanctions.

But in a further sign Iran wants to avoid confrontation, it confirmed that it had allowed UN nuclear inspectors to visit a military base suspected by Washington of links to a covert nuclear weapons programme.

IRNA said the letter by Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was handed to the ambassadors of the three European Union powers, who have led talks with Tehran on behalf of the EU.

In the letter, addressed to the foreign ministers of the EU trio, Larijani "called for constructive and logical negotiations with the three European states," IRNA said.

It was the first such direct approach by Iran to kick-start talks since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had adopted a tougher foreign policy stance than his reformist predecessor, took office in August.

Andrew Dunn, British Embassy spokesman in Tehran, confirmed that the three EU ambassadors attended a meeting at Iran's Supreme National Security Council on Sunday and were handed a letter for their foreign ministers from Larijani.

"It (the letter) was about the nuclear issue," Dunn said, declining to elaborate further.

Talks broke down in August when Tehran rejected an EU offer of economic and political incentives in return for scrapping sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities.

SEEKING TO AVOID CONFRONTATION

Instead, Iran broke UN seals at its Isfahan uranium conversion plant and began processing uranium into a gas that could be used to make atomic bombs or nuclear reactor fuel.

Those actions led the IAEA board to declare in September that Iran should be reported to the UN Security Council, although actual referral of Iran's case has yet to occur.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told a weekly news conference that IAEA inspectors had been allowed to revisit the Parchin military base, a site they have long been asking for greater access to.

The United States believes Iran may have experimented with high explosives appropriate for atomic weapons at Parchin, 30 km southeast of Tehran.

Iran says it has no interest in such arms, only in civilian nuclear technology to generate electricity.

"We opened the doors of Parchin again to the inspectors. The site had been visited in the past," Asefi said.

Analysts said Iran's improved cooperation with inspectors, noted by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei last week, was designed to undermine efforts to send its case to the Security Council.

"They are doing everything to avoid referral to the council. Iran is not strong enough to withstand sanctions," said Hamid Pirzadeh, a political science professor at Tehran University.

As well as urging Iran to give better access and cooperation to UN inspectors, the IAEA's September resolution also called on Tehran to halt uranium processing work at its Isfahan plant.

But Iran has refused to mothball the Isfahan plant and last week informed the IAEA of plans to start processing a fresh batch of uranium at the plant.

European Union foreign ministers will review the bloc's policy of engagement with Iran on Monday following Tehran's decision to resume its nuclear programme and Ahmadinejad's statement last month that Israel should "be wiped of the map".

- REUTERS

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