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US Rules Out Direct Talks With Iran On Nuclear Standoff

Scott McClellan said the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad (pictured), was "authorized to speak with Iranians about issues specifically related to Iraq." Copyright AFP.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Mar 17, 2006
The United States on Thursday ruled out any direct discussions with Iran on the nuclear standoff after the Islamic republic offered to negotiate with Washington on another thorny subject -- Iraq.

On the same day of the release of a key study pinpointing Iran as the United States' biggest threat, the White House said any talks between the US and Iran on efforts to stabilize Iraq would not take up the nuclear crisis or other disputes and that negotiators would have a "very narrow mandate."

"The nuclear issue is being discussed at the United Nations among diplomats of the Security Council," spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. "That's a separate issue."

Asked whether negotiations on Iraq would be a step forward in US-Iran relations, McClellan replied: "Our views and concerns regarding the regime in Iran are very clear, and we have a number of concerns about the regime. The other issues are separate from this issue."

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Iran's offer to talk directly about Iraq was a sign that Tehran's leaders "are finally beginning to listen" to the United States.

"The idea that we don't talk to Iran is remarkable. We're talking to Iran all the time: We make statements, they make statements," Hadley said.

But he said that any talks about Iraq's future relations with neighboring Iran would have to be handled by Iraqi leaders, as opposed to the US negotiating on Iraq's behalf.

As for Iran's nuclear program, however, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said it would be fruitless to try to negotiate with Tehran in view of the country's track record on the issue.

"The problem here is not the absence of discussions between the United States and Iran, the problem is what Iran is doing," Burns told reporters.

"We see an Iranian government, particularly since (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad came to office, that seems bound and determined to create a nuclear weapons capability," he added.

"We have made the calculation ... that it is better to try to isolate the Iranian government."

Burns said he was confident that the UN Security Council will succeed in reaching agreement on appropriate action against Iran.

"We're concentrating our attention on that multilateral forum, convinced that if the coalition of countries that is together in New York can send a united message to Iran, that it has to roll back its nuclear activities and return to negotiations, that's the best way to deal with it," Burns said. "We choose that course, to isolate and shine the spotlight on the Iranians."

Earlier Thursday, both the US and Iran expressed willingness to engage in discussions about the situation in Iraq.

McClellan said the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was "authorized to speak with Iranians about issues specifically related to Iraq."

"Remember we previously have had discussions with Iran about issues relating to Afghanistan, but this is a very narrow mandate dealing specifically with issues relating to Iraq," the spokesman said.

The US response to Tehran's overtures came on the same day that Washington released a quadrennial national security policy planning document that identified Iran as perhaps the country's leading threat.

"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," the White House said in a blueprint called the "National Security Stategy" of the United States.

In the document the United States warned states like North Korea and especially Iran that it will take preemptive military action if necessary to protect itself.

If US-Iranian negotiations were to occur on Iraq or any subject, it would be the first direct talks since Washington broke ties with Tehran in April 1980 in the wake of the Islamic revolution that ousted the US-backed Shah, and since some 70 Americans were taken hostage from the US embassy in Tehran.

The last time the two sides sat at the same table was in 2001 in a room with seven other countries, including Russia, for discussions about Afghanistan.

Until now, the arch-rivals have resisted a dialogue on Iraq, despite Iran's strong ties to the major Shiite parties who dominate Baghdad's political scene, and the growing violence that threatens to rip Iraq apart.

Deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the discussions with Tehran on the Iraq issue would likely focus on concerns expressed in the past by the US administration that Iran was seeking to undermine its efforts in Iraq.

"Iran is doing things in Iraq that we don't think are helpful or supportive of Iraq," Ereli said. "Ambassador Khalilzad is authorized to raise those matters directly with the Iranians in Iraq."

Source: Agence France-Presse

related report

Tehran Willing To Talk With US About Iraq
Tehran, Iran (AFP) Mar 17 - At loggerheads with the United States over its nuclear programme, Tehran said Thursday it was ready to negotiate with the "Great Satan" to help stabilise neighboring Iraq. The White House responded by saying any talks would not take up the nuclear crisis or other disputes and that negotiators would have a "very narrow mandate."

"We agree to negotiate with the Americans," the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani told reporters after a closed-door speech to parliament.

"Iran accepts the demand of (Iraqi Shiite leader Abdel Aziz) Hakim to resolve the Iraqi problems and issues with the goal of creating an independent (Iraqi) government," said Larijani, also Iran's nuclear chief.

Hakim, leader of one of Iraq's main Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), called Wednesday for a dialogue between longtime foes Iran and America.

His comments echoed those of the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who said in a television interview Friday he was ready to hold talks with Iran on matters of mutual concern.

President George W. Bush's administration has stepped up its accusations in recent days about Iranian "meddling" in Iraq, adding to the pressure over Tehran's disputed nuclear activities, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "The nuclear issue is being discussed at the United Nations among diplomats of the Security Council. That's a separate issue."

Asked whether negotiations on Iraq would be a step forward in US-Iran relations, he replied: "Our views and concerns regarding the regime in Iran are very clear, and we have a number of concerns about the regime. The other issues are separate from this issue."

For his part, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said it would be fruitless to try to negotiate with Tehran on its nuclear program in view of the country's track record on the issue.

"The problem here is not the absence of discussions between the United States and Iran, the problem is what Iran is doing," Burns told reporters.

"We see an Iranian government, particularly since (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad came to office, that seems bound and determined to create a nuclear weapons capability.

"We have made the calculation (...) that it is better to try to isolate the Iranian government."

Observers were skeptical the United States and Iran could make any headway on Iraq as long as the sides continue to tussle over the Tehran's nuclear programme.

"There is no way talks between the US and Iran over Iraq will get anywhere if they are not tied in with negotiations over the nuclear question, because Iran is using its ability to cause "harm and pain" to the US in Iraq as leverage in that matter," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the Brussels-based International Crisis group's Middle East offices.

Until now, US embassy officials have insisted any contact with Tehran would have to come from Washington despite the giant Iranian embassy's lying only a few blocks away from the capital's highly fortified Green Zone.

If US-Iranian negotiations were to occur, it would be their first direct talks since Washington broke ties with Tehran in April 1980 after the Islamic revolution that ousted the US-backed shah and the taking of US hostages.

Until now, the arch rivals have resisted a dialogue on Iraq, despite Iran's strong ties to the major Shiite parties who dominate Baghdad's political scene, and the growing violence that threatens to tear Iraq apart.

The last time the sides sat at the same table was in 2001 in a room with seven other countries, including Russia, for discussions over Afghanistan.

Over the years, efforts to revive ties between Tehran and Washington have proven elusive amid numerous false starts, most prominently during Iran's reformist era under then president Mohammed Khatami.

In fact, the relationship has sunk to new lows over the past five years after Bush named Iran part of an axis of evil along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2002.

Ahmadinejad has only added fuel to the fire with his fierce anti-Western rhetoric and his defense of the country's nuclear program.

In turn, US leaders have accused the Islamic republic of exporting terror and having ambitions to obtain an atomic bomb. The White House named Tehran its number one security threat in its National Security Strategy document, obtained by AFP on Thursday.

The UN Security Council is due to take up the matter of Iran's nuclear program on Friday, paving the way for possible sanctions and even greater tensions between the Islamic republic and the world's sole super power.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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