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Negotiating amid Iranians' cry of 'Death to America!'

July 19, 2008|Ramin Mostaghim | Special to The Times
  • Iranian Shiite Muslim worshippers shout anti-Israel and anti-US slogans as Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami delivers the weekly Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University on July 18, 2008.
Iranian Shiite Muslim worshippers shout anti-Israel and anti-US slogans… (Atta Kenare / AFP/Getty…)

TEHRAN — Though the Bush administration appears to be making a late adjustment to its Iran policy, there was little evidence of a gentler Iranian attitude toward the United States at weekly prayers Friday.

At Iran's 1,500th Friday prayer session since the sermons resumed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami gave a typically fiery speech. Worshipers chanted slogans likening the U.S. to the Roman Empire and punctuated the sermon with cries of "Death to America!"

The U.S. this week announced that it would send an envoy to talks today between international and Iranian negotiators over Iran's nuclear program. Hints increased that the U.S. may be interested in setting up a diplomatic outpost in Iran beyond the tiny Swiss-run interests section it now maintains.

As Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, headed to Geneva for the talks with European, Russian and Chinese counterparts, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki heartily welcomed such an expansion of U.S.-Iranian contacts and repeated a call for more direct air flights between Tehran and the U.S.

"I think there may be talks on both the U.S. founding an interest-preserving bureau in Iran and direct flights between the two countries," Mottaki told Turkish television during a visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital.

But Iran's Foreign Ministry doesn't always have the final word on foreign policy.

Khatami, not to be confused with the liberal-minded former president with the same last name, dismissed international concerns about Iran's nuclear programs as "pretexts" for pressuring Tehran. "If not the nuclear issue, then human rights, and if there is no human rights case, they look for other pretexts, such as animal rights," he said.

He said Western news outlets had conveyed Iran's message that if attacked by the U.S., "our nation will give a lesson that our enemies never forget."

He rejected the idea that there were moderates and hard-liners in the Iranian leadership.

"Far from it," he said. "The Supreme National Security Council is in charge of [the nuclear issue], and all officials and statesmen are in unison."

Still, even Iran's hard-line clerics welcome contacts with the U.S., as long as there are no preconditions and talks are used only as a tactical tool.

"Negotiation is important for knowing the approach of the other side," Jalili, the nuclear negotiator, said before leaving for Geneva, according to Iranian television.

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