• Ashton and Zarif in Geneva last year - the nuclear accord has led to better ties (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

EU's top diplomat agrees to landmark Iran visit

14.01.14 @ 09:07

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton has agreed to visit Iran amid wider efforts to improve relations between the Islamic republic and the West.

She told press while visiting Kuwait on Monday (13 January) that: "I read with interest the invitation to visit Tehran and it is my intention to do so in the course of the next weeks.”

Her decision comes after Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi on Saturday told media she has “an open invitation” to visit any time.

It also comes after Iran and the UN Security Council veto countries plus Germany in Geneva on Sunday agreed details of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Under the accord, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA in Vienna, will file a report on whether Iran is keeping its promise to stop production of near-weapons-grade uranium and to neutralise its stockpile of existing material.

If the IAEA says Yes, the EU and US will from 20 January begin to release tranches of $4.2 billion worth of Iranian oil money frozen in their banks.

The EU will also suspend its ban on EU insurance firms’ co-operation with Iranian oil tankers, on European investment in Iran’s petrochemcial sector and on bilateral trade in gems and precious metals.

The suspension will last six months, amid ongoing negotiations on a permanent accord.

But the EU will uphold its broader ban on Iranian oil exports and on international wire transfers to selected Iranian banks until a comprehensive deal is in place.

Ashton added in Kuwait that Iran must ensure the "political agreement now translates into practical things.”

For its part, Iran has long denied that its atomic industry is trying to produce weapons.

“There is a very serious confidence deficit vis-a-vis the West in Iran. Our people believe that our peaceful nuclear programme has been dealt with in a totally unfounded way,” its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, told media in Lebanon also on Monday, Reuters reports.

The mistrust has in recent years raised the prospect of an Israeli or US military strike on its nuclear facilties.

It has also deepened Iran’s international isolation.

But the nuclear talks, which saw an initial breakthrough last November, have seen a gradual warming-up in diplomatic ties.

Italy’s foreign minister, Emma Bonino, visited Tehran in December, and Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, is planning to go before the end of February.

EU countries’ ambassadors in Tehran also told visiting MEPs last month they want Ashton’s foreign service to create an Iran special envoy or to open an EU embassy in the country.

Iran’s return to the international scene will be on show in Switzerland on January 22 to 25, when its new President, Hassan Rohani, will mingle with world leaders, business chiefs and intellectuals at the Davos economic forum.

His main adversary in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also plans to attend.

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