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U.S. in 'Useful' Talks With Iran

The meetings have focused recently on Iraq, Middle East peace efforts and terrorism.

May 13, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — After almost a quarter-century of tension and deep distrust, the United States is now engaged in "useful" discussions with Iran over issues of mutual concern, according to Bush administration officials.

The meetings, officially under U.N. auspices, grew out of a long-standing diplomatic process that originally focused on Afghanistan but then extended to include Iraq. More recently, the talks have addressed Middle East peace efforts, terrorism and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group and political party in Lebanon, a senior State Department official traveling with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Monday.

The latest talks were held May 3 in Geneva and future meetings are expected, although no dates have been set.

Although the U.N. committee dealing with Afghanistan convened all of the meetings, some of the discussions became direct talks between the U.S. and Iranian representatives, the State Department official said. The talks now address both U.S. issues and Iranian security concerns.

"It's a useful chance for us to address issues that we think are important," he told reporters traveling with Powell in the Middle East.

Recently, the face-to-face talks and discussions through Swiss diplomatic intermediaries have focused heavily on the political transition in Iraq and Iranian support for Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq, particularly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The council has been headquartered in Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, during more than two decades in exile. The group's leader returned to Iraq over the weekend and has called for a moderate Islamic government. Shiite Muslims account for more than 60% of the nation's 24 million people.

"These are attempts by us to make the same kind of points to Iran that we made to other governments in the region," the official said. "You should not interfere in Iraq. You should allow the development of a representative government. You should not insert any [hard-line] groups into Iraq. We all need to help this process succeed. That includes avoiding any interference in the politics of Iraq."

The administration insists that the talks so far have not focused on restoring diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1980 after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized. Although 52 Americans were freed in 1981 after 444 days in captivity, relations have never been repaired. Secret talks that resulted in an arms-for-hostage swap during the Reagan administration did not end up mending ties.

In an Iranian magazine interview recently, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani floated the idea of a national referendum to decide whether Iran and the U.S. should restore relations. But Tehran denied Monday that there was any movement to resume relations with Washington.

"The behavior adopted by the Americans shows that they do not observe equality and mutual respect," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Tehran Radio. "Therefore, there have been no negotiations for mutual relations and restoring ties with America."

Tehran's key demands have long centered on securing U.S. pledges not to meddle in Iranian affairs and apologies for past American intervention, including the CIA's role in orchestrating a plot that restored the last shah to the throne in 1953.

During Republican as well as Democratic administrations, Washington has said the issues pivotal to any formal dialogue are Iran's support of terrorist groups, opposition to an Arab-Israeli peace and development of weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration has worried in recent months that Tehran's nuclear program may be more aggressive than originally estimated, a concern heightened during February inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tehran claims it wants to develop nuclear energy to supply electricity to its mushrooming population.

Iran may be able to produce sufficient amounts of enriched uranium by 2005 to make nuclear bombs, U.S. officials suggest.

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Monday that Iran would have to face consequences if noncompliance with international agreements is discovered.

"If they [IAEA inspectors] find what preliminary suggestions say they found in Iran and, knowing what we know about the programs, then there has to be some consequence for that," she told Reuters. The options include taking the issue to the United Nations for action.

The State Department said Friday that it had communicated "strong concern" to allies and other nations, particularly Russia and China, about Iran's "ambitious pursuit" of nuclear arms. Powell is also expected to discuss Iran's program during a stop in Moscow on Wednesday.

Even as it expresses reservations about Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. has taken some recent action in Iran's interest. It bombed the camps of Moujahedeen Khalq, the most active Iranian opposition group, which has been based in Iraq and was supported by Saddam Hussein.

After briefly negotiating a cease-fire with the organization, U.S. troops are now forcing it to hand over its weapons. The group is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Rice said the administration is not divided on policy options vis-a-vis Iran, despite what other officials have described as debate particularly between the State Department and the Pentagon on a range of matters. There are "many, many barriers" to bettering relations with Tehran, she said.

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