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Senior Iranian Denies 'Back-Channel' Talks With U.S.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad with senior advisor Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- A senior aide to Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has denied a U.S. report that he had held "back-channel" talks with American representatives, Iranian state television said.

But the official, Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi, suggested he had taken part in non-governmental meetings of academics and other experts from countries including the United States at which Iran's relations with the West were discussed.

He was asked to comment on a "Washington Times" report which said former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry "held a series of previously undisclosed meetings last year with a senior adviser" to Ahmadinejad to discuss Iran's nuclear work.

The report, published on January 30 and citing a person familiar with "the back-channel talks," identified Samareh-Hashemi as the Iranian official who met Perry. It said the talks were discussions and not negotiations.

"I have had no official or unofficial talks with Americans," Samareh-Hashemi said in an interview with Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he sees Iran as a threat but is also offering direct dialogue with its leaders.

Ahmadinejad has set tough terms for any talks with Obama's administration, saying it must change its policy, not just its tactics, toward Tehran and apologise for past "crimes" against Iran.

Analysts say the Islamic republic, which has not had diplomatic ties with Washington for three decades, is seeking to buy time before deciding whether or not to open up.

The United States accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear bombs, a charge Tehran denies.

Samareh-Hashemi said meetings organised by research centers and non-governmental bodies with people from many countries were common, but attendants were not sent in any official capacity.

"In the current year there were some meetings on the topic of reviewing relations between Iran and the West, and some people from Iran, Russia, Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands, Austria, and America attended them," he said. "These meetings were a good opportunity for Iranians to talk about their foreign policy and remove concerns and also answer questions about various issues including production of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

His comments suggested he had attended such meetings.

"The Cable," a website of the U.S. magazine "Foreign Policy," also reported last week that Perry, U.S. nuclear experts, and others held several meetings with Iranian officials in Europe in the past year.

It said they met under the auspices of the Pugwash group, set up in 1957, which advocates the elimination of nuclear arms.