By By ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Direct talks between Iran and the United States are possible, but any such breakthrough would have to be approved by the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's foreign minister said Monday.
The comments by Ali Akbar Salehi were a first sign Tehran may seek diplomatic overtures with what it long considers a nemesis in Washington, as sanctions over Iran's contentious nuclear program stunt the country's economy.
"Comprehensive political talks are within the powers of the exalted supreme leader," Salehi said in comments published by the official IRNA news agency.
The U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Iran after militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to protest Washington's support for deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi following the country's 1979 revolution. The revolution toppled the pro-U.S. leader and led to an Islamic clerical government.
Tehran cooperated with the Washington in the early days following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, but relations reached a new nadir when former President George W. Bush branded it part of the "Axis of Evil." Iran also supported the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, but opposed U.S. occupation of the country. In recent weeks, the idea of direct talks has been debated in Iranian media.
"Until now, talks have been held with the U.S. on specific subjects such as Afghanistan and Iraq," Salehi said. "But as for the idea of comprehensive political talks being raised in public debate — this issue is within the powers of the exalted supreme leader. His excellency decides whether this should be done or not."
Khamenei has given no indication he would meet American diplomats or leaders, and has usually opposed any rapprochement with Washington, denouncing it as an "arrogant power" and accusing it of decades of interference in Iran's internal affairs.
He rebuffed President Barack Obama's outreach in 2009, saying Tehran preferred to wait and see if the U.S. made concrete changes to its foreign policy.
The two countries are party to six-nation talks over Tehran's controversial nuclear program which are currently stalled.
In recent weeks, the U.S. has indicated that it is willing to hold direct bilateral talks with Iran, as Tehran increased its stockpile of enriched uranium, deepening concerns in the West that the Islamic Republic is close to reaching a level where it could produce a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for exactly that. Iran has denied the charges, saying the program is peaceful and geared toward generating electricity and producing medical isotopes to treat cancer patients.