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Obama Administration Stresses Need For Iran Talks

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice at UN headquarters on January 26
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -- The new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations has said the new U.S. administration will make Iran's nuclear program a top diplomatic priority and pursue direct talks with Tehran.

"We remain deeply concerned about the threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to the region, indeed to the United States and to the entire international community," Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after 45 minutes of closed-door discussions with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"We look forward to engaging in vigorous diplomacy that includes direct diplomacy with Iran," she said, in comments that were among the clearest indications that President Barack Obama wants to try a new approach in dealing with Iran.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later clarified Rice's remarks, saying Washington will use "all elements of our national power" in dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

Later, in his first interview with Arab television since becoming U.S. president, Obama told Al-Arabiya that his administration would adopt a more comprehensive approach in its relations with the Muslim world.

"It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but [also] where there are potential avenues for progress," he said, adding that the administration would lay out its approach in the next few months. "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

The administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush was pushing for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

But the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- known as the "P5+1" -- had put discussions on next steps with Iran on hold until the Obama administration was in office, council diplomats have said.

Although a senior U.S. official sat at a negotiating table with an Iranian official in Geneva last year, the Bush administration balked at the idea of direct nuclear talks with Iran, preferring instead to try to isolate Tehran.