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 Post subject: US and Iran for talks on Iraq
PostPosted: Sun Mar 19, 2006 12:54 am 
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US and Iran for talks on Iraq
Correspondents in Tehran and Washington
March 18, 2006


IRAN and the US have agreed to hold face-to-face talks for the first time since the war on Iraq in an attempt to stop the divided nation slipping into civil war.

Amid growing tensions over Iran's nuclear aspirations, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, said Iran had accepted an invitation by the US ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to hold talks on the plight of its divided neighbour.

Both parties insisted that any talks would be limited to Iraq, and Iran said its help in Iraq was conditional upon the US taking a "harder look at the way it acts", The New York Times reported.

In an interview shortly after he announced that Iran was ready to talk to Washington about Iraq, Mr Larijani, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said: "I think Iraq is a good testing ground for America to take a harder look at the way it acts.

"If there's a determination in America to take that hard look, then we're prepared to help."

Mr Larijani said his offer to talk with Washington came in response to urgings by Abdel Aziz Hakim, the leader of one of Iraq's main Shi'ite parties, who, three months after elections, is still struggling with Sunni and Kurdish parties to form a government.

"We have repeatedly said that we are willing to help bring stability in Iraq and bring to power a democratic government," Mr Larijani told the newspaper.

"We are prepared to give our hand. But the condition is that the United States should respect the vote of the people. Their army must not provoke from behind the scenes.

"We do not have much trust. We have certain doubts about the way Americans act. We do not hear one voice. We hear distorted voices from the US."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Iran's nuclear program was a "separate issue ... being discussed at the United Nations".

If US-Iranian negotiations were to occur, it would be among their only direct talks since Washington broke ties with Tehran in April 1980 after the Islamic revolution that ousted the US-backed shah and the taking of US hostages.

Until now, the arch rivals have resisted a dialogue on Iraq, despite Iran's strong ties to the major Shia parties who dominate Baghdad's political scene and the growing violence that threatens to tear Iraq apart.

A mutual lack of trust exists between the two nations. George W. Bush famously referred to Iran as part of an "axis of evil" in 2002 and the US has accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons and sending weapons and men to support the insurgency in Iraq.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Iranian Revolutionary Guards of assisting the smuggling of explosives and bomb-making material into Iraq, an allegation Iran denies.

Mr Khalilzad is authorised to talk to the Iranians about Iraq just as the US had talked to Iran about Afghanistan.

The proposal to hold direct talks on Iraq came a day after Iraq's most powerful Shia politician, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, called for Iran-US talks.

"I demand the leadership in Iran to open a clear dialogue with America about Iraq," said Hakim, who has ties with Iran. "It is in the interests of the Iraqi people that such dialogue is opened."

Iran has expressed grave concern about the violence in Iraq, where bloody sectarian fighting and reprisal killings have escalated recently.

The US broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 after the US embassy in Tehran was seized by students to protest Washington's refusal to hand over Iran's former monarch to Iran for trial.

Militant students held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Tehran-Washington relations began thawing after the 1997 election of former President Mohammad Khatami, who called for cultural and athletic exchanges to help bring down the wall of mistrust between the countries.

But relations worsened after Mr Bush's "axis of evil" speech. Nevertheless, Iran supported the reconstruction process in Afghanistan after US-supported forces ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Iranian officials had previously said Tehran was not interested in discussions before US troops pulled out of Iraq.

AP, AFP, Reuters


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