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Iran: Diplomat Says Washington Open To Limited Talks With Tehran

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage says the United States is open to resuming limited talks with Iran on issues of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and drug trafficking. But unless Tehran shares information on Al-Qaeda members in Iran, Armitage says relations between the two countries will not improve.

Washington, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a broad discussion of Iran and its fractured ties with the United States, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Washington is open to resuming limited talks with Tehran. Armitage made his comments at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, part of which was behind closed doors.

America's No.2 diplomat told the committee that Washington shares a number of pressing interests with Iran, including the country's role in Afghanistan and Iraq and its battle with drug smuggling. He said these issues could warrant resuming limited discussions with Iran but not a "broad dialogue with the aim of normalizing relations," which were broken off after Tehran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Armitage's comments came as Washington criticized Iran for refusing to hand over Al-Qaeda operatives in its custody and for sending intelligence personnel across the border into Iraq, apparently with the aim of destabilizing the U.S.-led efforts there.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday: "The point remains -- it's one we have made repeatedly -- we remain deeply concerned about these kind of objectionable and damaging policies that Iran has pursued with regard to supporting terrorism, as well as some of the other areas, and we remain particularly concerned by the presence of senior Al-Qaeda figures in Iran."

Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iran intends to try the prisoners in Iranian courts and punish them according to its laws, because their alleged crimes were committed within Iran.

Asefi would not reveal the number or names of the Al-Qaeda suspects for security reasons. But he said Iran has provided the United Nations with details on 147 prisoners suspected of having links to the group.

U.S. President George W. Bush also weighed in on Iran. In a news conference at the White House yesterday, Bush said foreign fighters coming from Iran and Syria could be behind some of the attacks against civilian targets in Iraq. "We are working closely with those countries [Iran and Syria] to let them know that we expect them to enforce borders, prevent people from coming across borders if, in fact, we catch them doing that," he said.

Armitage's comments appeared to leave open the possibility that Washington and Iran could resume talks for the first time since last May.

U.S. officials held meetings with Iranian officials in Geneva earlier this year. But Washington canceled further talks after the 12 May bombings in Riyadh because it believed Iran was sheltering members of Al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, as well as the Riyadh bombings, which killed 35 people.

But Armitage noted, "Despite public statements that they would cooperate with other countries, the Iranians have refused repeated requests to turn over or share intelligence about all Al-Qaeda members and leaders they claim to have in custody."

Armitage added that Bush has said that Iran must resolve the Al-Qaeda issue before relations with the U.S. can improve, yet he later told reporters: "I didn't put any preconditions [for contacts], nor did I say we would do it if they asked. I said that we'll do it when we think it's in our interest."

Asked if U.S. policy in Iran is "regime change," Armitage said that it is not. He said U.S. policy is to stop Iranian development of weapons of mass destruction and Tehran's support for terrorism while working to promote human rights and religious freedom.

But Armitage also repeated that the U.S. must "keep all available options on the table" -- a euphemism for military force -- but he placed greater emphasis on the possibility of resuming talks with Iran.

As an aside, Armitage -- who worked in Iran during the 1970s -- said of the Iranian people, "I don't think you could find a more charming people individually than Iranians -- and hospitable."

Shireen Hunter is head of the Islam Program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said Armitage's comments seem to suggest that Washington may feel its best bet for effecting change in Iran and in Iranian policies is through engagement. "Maybe we can achieve some of our goals, including the gradual change of regime in Iran, more through engagement [rather] than through complete isolation or, even worse probably, military action," she said.

But Hunter added that other forces in the U.S. government are likely to oppose even limited openings to Iran. Armitage said the ultimate decision must be made by Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. He also told the Senate panel that while Iranian reformers are cooperating with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hard-line religious establishment still appears bent on sabotaging American efforts.

Iran and the United States have also been at loggerheads over Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program. U.S. officials remain deeply suspicious about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Last week, Iran agreed to stop making highly enriched uranium -- which can be used in nuclear bombs -- and sign up to snap inspections of nuclear sites. But Iran's Foreign Ministry later said Tehran will have to consider the "modalities of a suspension" before taking action.

Armitage said he suspects that on the keys issues of nuclear weapons and Israel, Iranian reformers may not be that different from their religious counterparts. "Would [the reformers]," he asked, "even if democratically elected, eschew forever weapons of mass destruction? I don't know the answer to that, because there is a sense of destiny in what used to be Persia."

Armitage added: "You don't hear generally the so-called reformists talking in more moderate terms about the right of Israel to exist. These are open questions, even under a different society."