Tue, Nov 07, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Iran open to talks with US - but not on nuclear program

NEIGHBORHOOD WOES?The Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that it would discuss Iraq and other issues with Washington, if the US asked for talks


Iran says it is open to negotiations with the US on Iraq and other regional issues but hinted it would not drop its refusal to talk about its nuclear program.

As the UN Security Council geared up for a protracted debate on sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program, Tehran praised Russia for its "softer" stance on the issue.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on Sunday that Iran would consider talks with the US over regional issues, including Iraq, if Washington requested.

He would not elaborate, and there was no immediate response from the US on the offer.

"If there is any official request about regional issues, we are ready to review it," Hosseini told reporters.

However, he said Iran would not change its position regarding bilateral relations with the US, suggesting Tehran would refuse to talk about the nuclear issue. The US has demanded Iran stop enriching uranium as a precondition to talks about its program.

The US said in May it wanted to hold direct talks with Iran about Iraq -- which would have been the most public exchanges by the countries in years.

Tehran agreed, and US and Iranian officials said at the time that the talks would focus on the situation in Iraq, not on broader subjects such as Iran's nuclear program.

However, Iran then changed its mind, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki rejecting the negotiation on grounds that Americans had raised "other issues" and had tried to use the decision to hold the talks as propaganda.

Iran's statement on Sunday seemed to indicate the government was once again willing to consider the idea of direct talks with the US over Iraq, which is veering ever closer to civil war. US officials have accused Iran of interfering in Iraq since the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003.

But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also said the White House believes Tehran has a role to play in stabilizing Iraq, whose government is dominated by Shiite Muslims like Iran's.

Some Western experts believe Iran is genuinely worried about civil conflict in Iraq and its potential to spill over, although others say Iranian hardliners may have an interest in causing at least some turmoil. Iranian leaders are believed to have close links to some Iraqi leaders and clerics.

Meanwhile, state-run radio said on Sunday the International Atomic Energy Agency officials inspected Iran's nuclear facilities in Isfahan and Natanz including a new enrichment cascade. The inspection was the first since Tehran announced it had successfully stepped up its uranium enrichment activities last month.

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