Striking a rare conciliatory note toward a state he has included in the "axis of evil," US President George W. Bush said late on Friday that he was "interested in learning more" about Iran and its government.
With US diplomats trying to drum up support for new sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program, Bush underscored the importance of channels of communication -- and disclosed that he had personally signed off on granting a US visa to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.
The moderate Iranian leader, known for his diplomatic entreaties to the Clinton administration, was on a speaking tour of the US last week.
"I was interested to hear what he had to say," Bush told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. "I'm interested in learning more about the Iranian government, how they think, [and] what people think within [that] government."
The US president reiterated his conviction that the present government in Tehran, which denies Israel's right to exist and is believed to give support to radical Islamic movements, should not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.
But he expressed the hope that Iranians could be persuaded to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions through diplomatic means.
"And in order for diplomacy to work, it's important to hear voices other than current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's," Bush said.
The remarks contrast with a statement made by Bush on Sept. 5, in which he branded Iran's president a "tyrant."
On Thursday, the White House also dismissed Ahmadinejad's offer to engage in a debate with Bush at the UN later this month, when the Iranian president is expected to be in New York to address the UN General Assembly.
The interview came as EU diplomat Javier Solana looked set to hold talks at an undisclosed location yesterday with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, in another bid to persuade Tehran to abandon uranium enrichment, which Iranians say is part of a peaceful energy program but Western nations fear could be used to manufacture nuclear bombs.
Six world powers -- the US, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany -- are weighing possible sanctions against Iran, which has refused to comply with a UN Security Council resolution demanding it freeze its enrichment program by Aug. 31.
Khatami was the most prominent Iranian to visit the US since Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979, after radical Islamic students occupied the US embassy in Tehran and held 53 US diplomats hostage for 444 days.
In speeches and interviews delivered during his US tour, Khatami seemed intent on smoothing over tensions and emphasized the language of reconciliation.
He urged the two countries to stop trading threats and restart dialogue while insisting that a freeze on Iranian nuclear activities could be discussed during negotiations.
Unconfirmed reports state that Khatami might meet with former US president Jimmy Carter, who has played a mediating role in the past.
Last May, Ahmadinejad sent a personal letter to Bush, which contained a broad overview of US-Iranian relations. The White House has dismissed the letter as a publicity stunt.
Although Bush has not attended any of Khatami's speeches, his interview indicates that he is well aware of their content.
Asked to comment on Khatami's remarks that the US would not be able to take strong action against Iran because it is already bogged down in Iraq, Bush replied: "Well, he also said it's very important for the coalition troops to stay in Iraq so that there is a stable government on the Iranian border."
Khatami's visit has sparked loud protests in Congress, with lawmakers demanding that the former president be taken to task for the support his government has given to terrorist organizations.