WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department on Tuesday belittled Iran's offer to let some countries — but not the United States — visit its nuclear facilities, calling the offer a "magical mystery tour."
Departmental spokesman P.J. Crowley said the offer is no substitute for Iran's full cooperation with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency to prove that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes and not for building a bomb.
The Tehran government confirmed on Tuesday that it has invited world powers and its allies in the Arab and developing world — but apparently not the United States, its chief critic — to tour the nuclear sites before a high-profile meeting in Istanbul in late January on the disputed nuclear program.
The Associated Press on Monday reported the invitation to tour the facilities, citing a letter from a senior Iranian envoy that suggested the visit take place the weekend of Jan. 15-16.
An Iranian official speaking on condition of anonymity from a European capital said facilities to be visited include the nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and the Arak site, where Tehran is building a plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor.
Both facilities are considered suspect by the West because they could be used to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads; Tehran's refusal to shut them down has triggered U.N. Security Council sanctions.
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast confirmed the offer, saying it went to "the EU, the nonaligned movement and representatives from 5+1 countries." Mr. Mehmanparast said Iran would identify the invited countries at a later time, but it appears that not all of the "5+1" nations received invitations.
The "5+1" countries are the six world powers negotiationing with Iran over its nuclear program: the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany.
A diplomat familiar with the invitation said the United States and the other Western powers in the group were not invited in an apparent attempt to split the six powers ahead of the Istanbul talks.
Reporters asked Mr. Crowley how the Obama administration felt about Iran's decision not to include the United States on the invitation list. He responded sarcastically, saying, "We're just crushed."
While the State Department spokesman did not urge others to decline the invitation, he did say that there is no reason for any country to attend.
Mr. Mehmanparast said the invitation was a sign of Iran's "good will" and greater transparency about its nuclear program. Iran insists its nuclear program is designed to generate power, but the West suspects that's just a cover to build bombs.
Mr. Mehmanparast did not give a firm date but said the tour would take place before the January talks.
The new round of negotiations is meant to explore whether there is common ground for more substantive talks on Iran's nuclear program. A round of talks in Geneva in December yielded no breakthrough.
The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran freeze uranium enrichment, a process that can produce both fuel and fissile warhead material. But Iranian negotiators flatly ruled out discussing such demands at the Istanbul meeting.
The offer of a visit comes more than three years after six diplomats from developing nations visited Iran's uranium ore conversion site at Isfahan, which turns raw uranium into the gas that is then fed into enriching centrifuges. Participating diplomats told reporters they could not assess Iran's nuclear aims based on what they saw there.
The new offer appeared more wide-ranging, both in terms of who was invited and sites to be visited.
Dated Dec. 27, the four-paragraph letter offered no details beyond offering an all-expenses paid "visit to Iran's nuclear sites."
But a diplomat familiar with its contents said it was mailed to Russia, China, Egypt, the group of nonaligned nations at the IAEA, Cuba, Arab League members at the IAEA, and Hungary, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency. He spoke on condition of anonymity because his information was privileged.
China, and to a lesser degree Russia, have acted to dilute harsh sanctions proposed by the United States and its Western allies on the Security Council, leading to compromise penalties enacted by the council that are milder than the West originally had hoped.
The outreach to Moscow and Beijing in Tehran's offer to visit appeared to be an attempt to leverage any differences between the Eastern and Western powers meeting the Iranians in Istanbul.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei acknowledged that Beijing has received an invitation and hopes the dispute over Iran's nuclear program would be resolved through dialogue.
The Foreign Ministry of Hungary also confirmed receiving the Iranian letter and said it is discussing the offer with other EU nations and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
AP writer George Jahn in Vienna, Austria, contributed to this report.