By Justyna Pawlak and Louis Charbonneau
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday defended her talks with human rights activists during a recent visit to Iran, saying meeting dissidents is a central part of her official travels.
Speaking on the sidelines of talks in Vienna between Iran and six world powers on Tehran's contested nuclear program, coordinated by Ashton, her spokesman said meetings with civil society representatives abroad were "quite normal".
A day before, Iran's official IRNA news agency said, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had canceled a customary dinner with Ashton on the eve of the talks due to her "undiplomatic" behavior, an apparent reference to the Tehran meeting.
Iran has also warned the Austrian embassy in Tehran after it hosted a meeting between Ashton and six Iranian women on March 8 that such contacts could jeopardize relations between the Islamic Republic and Europe, according to Iranian media.
"She always sees civil society representatives, particularly women, when she travels to a country," Michael Mann told reporters in Vienna. "It was the same when she went to Iran," he said.
Ashton's two-day visit to Tehran was the first by an EU foreign policy chief since 2008 and was part of her effort to build up relations with the Islamic Republic in parallel to the nuclear diplomacy she oversees.
The Vienna meeting, expected to last through Wednesday, is the second in a series that the West hopes will culminate in a broad settlement in the decade-old dispute that threatens to drag the Middle East into a new war.
Western governments - the United States, Britain, France and Germany - as well as China and Russia want Iran to curtail its nuclear program to the point when they would feel secure it could not yield atomic bombs.
They hope that the election of relative moderate president Hassan Rouhani last year on a platform of ending Iran's international isolation will help reach a deal and pave way for a broad rapprochement with the OPEC producer.
Iran denies having any military intentions and wants the West to lift massive economic sanctions that have crippled its economy since 2006.
Ashton had said after meeting Zarif, who represents Iran in the nuclear talks, in Tehran that there was a potential for a dialogue over human rights issues in the future.
Human rights activists fear that Iran's rapprochement with the West could lead to a relaxation of international scrutiny of the Islamic Republic's widely criticized human rights record.
At least 80 people have been executed in Iran already this year, a surge in the use of the death penalty that has dampened hopes for human rights reforms under Rouhani, the United Nations said on February 21.
Analysts note, however, that Iran's judiciary is under the sway of hardline conservative ideologues rather than Rouhani.
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Mark Heinrich)