Iran ready for talks with US over Iraq

TEHRAN (AP) — Iran said Thursday it was prepared to talk directly with the United States about Iraq, a major shift for a country that has long avoided negotiations with what it calls the “Great Satan.” The offer appears to reflect the desire by at least some top Iranian officials to relieve Western pressure over Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for help on Iraq, which is sliding ominously towards civil war. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, told reporters that any talks between the United States and Iran would be limited to Iraqi issues.

Larijani, who is also Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, said US Ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad had repeatedly invited Iran for talks on Iraq.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Khalilzad was authorised to talk to the Iranians about Iraq just as the United States had talked to Iran about Afghanistan.

“This is a very narrow mandate dealing specifically with issues relating to Iraq,” McClellan said, adding that it did not include US concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. But any direct dialogue between Tehran and Washington — were it to happen — could be the beginning of negotiations between the two old foes over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Washington accuses Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons and is leading a campaign for UN Security Council action.

Iran denies the charge, but would like to avoid any penalties from the Security Council, which is expected to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme this month.

The United States also accuses Iran of meddling in Iraqi politics and of sending weapons and men to support the insurgency.

“To resolve Iraqi issues, and to help the establishment of an independent and free government in Iraq, we agree to [talks with the United States],” Larijani told reporters after a closed meeting of the parliament Thursday. He added that negotiators would be appointed for the talks, but declined to give further details.

His statement marked the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution that Iran had officially proposed dialogue with the United States, which many of its top officials still refer to as “the Great Satan.” Analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international relations at Tehran’s Imam Sadeq University, said Larijani’s call was a genuine offer that could have significant consequences.

“This could be the beginning of a major breakthrough, ending more than two and a half decades of estrangement between Tehran and Washington,” Bavand said.

Bavand said that some of the clerics within the ruling establishment are convinced that Iran will be harmed by a head-on collision with the world over its nuclear activities.

How much support such views enjoy is unclear as the ruling establishment is opaque, but it is known that there are clerics who disagree with the foreign policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who takes a hard line against dialogue with the United States.

Bavand said that after Iran’s nuclear programme was reported to the UN Security Council last month, Russia and China sent messages to Iran saying that if it wanted a face-saving solution, it had to talk to America.

“Iran needs America to calm the growing tension over its nuclear programme,” Bavand said. At the same time, Washington wants to restore stability to Iraq, “and Iran has sufficient weight and influence to help it out.” Another political analyst in Tehran, Saeed Leylaz, also said that Tehran would be prepared to trade progress on Iraq with movement on the nuclear issue by Washington.

“Continued instability in Iraq is hampering America’s plans for the Middle East. Iran is ready to use its Iraq card to protect its nuclear achievements before it is too late,” Leylaz said.

The proposal to hold direct talks on Iraq came a day after the senior Iraqi Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz 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 close ties with Iran.

“It is in the interests of the Iraqi people that such dialogue is opened and reaches an understanding on various issues,” said Hakim, who leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, recently accused Iranian Revolutionary Guards of assisting the smuggling of explosives and bomb-making material into Iraq.

Iran denied the US charges, saying the occupying forces were responsible for the instability in Iraq.

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

The United States 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.

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