Speaking at a press conference on April 5, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice has not ruled out bilateral talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq early next month.
The Iraqi government says the meeting will take place at an as-yet undisclosed location and involve the country’s neighbors as well as world powers.
But McCormack also had critical remarks one day after Iran released 15 British service personnel, whom it had seized last month, accusing them of straying into Iranian waters:
"This is a regime [in Iran] that continues to behave in ways that are clearly outside the accepted norm of international behavior," McCormack said. "This is clearly a regime that, after several decades, continues to view hostage-taking as a tool of its international diplomacy."
Must Suspend Enrichment
McCormack also reiterated the U.S. position that in terms of discussing Iran's nuclear program, Washington would only meet with Tehran if it suspended its sensitive enrichment work.
Last month in Baghdad, during a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors, then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad had brief encounters with both Iranian and Syrian delegates. And this week, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in talks criticized by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Current European Union president Germany also said it hopes that Iran’s release of the Britons would improve dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on April 5, said he sees no link between Iran’s release of the Britons and any possibility of future direct talks between Tehran and Washington:
"I don't think there is any connection between [President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's] action to release the British soldiers and what might or might not happen between the United States and Iran in the future in terms of talks or anything else for that matter," Gates said.
"I would simply say as I did before that the motives of those who took the sailors, who authorized the taking of the sailors, who moved the sailors to Tehran, and the decision to release them are unknown to us at this point," he added.
Considering Tehran's Request
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said on April 5 that Washington now hopes that Iran will move forward with complying with UN Security Council resolutions aimed at stopping its uranium enrichment.
The United States and others accuse Iran of trying to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran says its program is for peaceful power purposes.
Since January, the United States has held five Iranians accused of being linked to attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.
McCormack said the United States was considering a request from Iran for consular access to the five. He said they are classified as "security detainees" and are held under Iraqi law and according to UN Security Council resolutions.
He also said that the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the detainees.
(with material from agency reports)