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Iran and U.S. agree to hold talks on halting violence in Iraq

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New York Times: Iran and the United States agreed today to hold direct talks on how to halt sectarian violence and restore calm in Iraq, offering the first face-to-face conversation between the two sides after months of confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. The New York Times

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN

TEHRAN, March 16 — Iran and the United States agreed today to hold direct talks on how to halt sectarian violence and restore calm in Iraq, offering the first face-to-face conversation between the two sides after months of confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, announced in Iran’s parliament that he would send a team of negotiators to Iraq to meet with American representatives there, and he also suggested in an interview that there would be stiff preconditions.

“I think Iraq is a good testing ground for America to take a harder look at the way it acts,” Mr. Larijani said in his office shortly after making the announcement. “If there’s a determination in America to take that hard look, then we’re prepared to help.”

In Washington, however, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that American officials would have a “very narrow mandate” in talking to the Iranians, and that direct talks on the nuclear issue would occur only with the leading European powers and Russia and China.

President Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said he regarded Iran’s new initiative as a sign that Tehran’s leaders “are finally beginning to listen” to the nations that have referred Iran’s nuclear activity to the Security Council. But he suggested that there was plenty of dialogue — most of it conducted in public.

“The idea that we don’t talk to Iran is remarkable,” Mr. Hadley said after a speech in which he described the revised “National Security Strategy of the United States,” which identified Iran as the single biggest national security challenge facing the country. “We’re talking to Iran all the time: We make statements, they make statements.”

But the statements they have been making have amounted to a public exchange of accusations and vague threats, from Iran’s periodic claim that it would consider an oil cutoff if the Security Council decides to censure Iraq to the Bush administration’s warning, in the new national security strategy, that diplomacy “must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided.”

As both sides maneuver for leverage in the increasingly heated conflict, and Iran has long alluded to the prospect it could be a help — or a hindrance — in Iraq, where it has close ties to several political parties and where a majority of the population are Shiite Muslims.

Mr. Larijani, general secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, announced that he would send negotiators to Iraq to meet with the United States ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. He said he was acting at the request of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite religious party with links to Iran. Mr. Larijani also said Mr. Khalilzad had reached out to Iran on several occasions asking for help.

“Hakim urged the Iranian government to do this because he said it was necessary for security in Iraq,” said Mr. Larijani’s spokesman, Hossein Entezami, who was present in Mr. Larijani’s office during the interview.

The agreement was the first tangible sign that Iran has taken a step back — however slight — from its full-bore confrontational approach with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. Since June, Iran has moved aggressively in defiance of the West, opening its nuclear facilities and moving ahead with small-scale uranium enrichment.

The leadership’s combative approach had won wide support in Iran when it was seen to be working. But with Iran unable to win the unequivocal support of Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency referring the case to the Security Council, there has been growing concern in Iran and a desire among some to move away from all-out confrontation.

While Iran reopened its nuclear facilities and canceled its voluntary cooperation with Europe over inspections, it did not resume industrial level enrichment when it was referred to the Security Council, as it had threatened. Mr. Entezami said Iran “did not want to provoke.”

Mr. Larijani, who ran for president in the last election, sat for more than an hour in his office defending Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, while berating the United States as arrogant, evil and disrespectful of other countries. In between the invective, he held out the prospect that Iran might be able to help America in calming Iraq. He did not mention that Iran would also stand to gain from stability next door and from the presence of a strong Shiite-dominated government receptive to Iranian influence.

“We have repeatedly said that we are willing to help bring stability in Iraq and bring to power a democratic government,” Mr. Larijani said. “We are prepared to give our hand. But the condition is that the United States should respect the vote of the people. Their army must not provoke from behind the scenes.”

The conflict over Iran’s nuclear issue has become intertwined with other issues. Diplomats here, for example, said Europe and Russia had both tried to use the case to re-establish their influence and prestige in international affairs. But direct talks between the United States and Iran over Iraq would mark the first public link between the nuclear issue and events beyond Iran’s border.

And so Iraq became the latest playing field in a battle between two countries — Iran and the United States — which remain deeply distrustful of each other. The United States and Europe have repeatedly accused Iran of lying and have noted that this crisis only began after the International Atomic Energy Agency discovered that for more than a decade, Iran had been concealing aspects of its nuclear program.

“We do not have much trust,” Mr. Larijani. “We have certain doubts about the way Americans act. We do not hear one voice. We hear distorted voices from the U.S.”

In Tehran, European diplomats said that there did not appear to be room for common ground on the nuclear issue for now. One European diplomat said that the West would never accept Iran’s bottom line, that it must enrich uranium on Iranian soil to bolster its scientific and economic development. And one diplomat said that feelers about direct talks with the United States were a local political calculation. Despite public invective against the United States, many Iranians are eager to see an improvement in relations.

“Is there a deal out there that gives them enrichment? No,” said the diplomat, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussion.

Another European diplomat said the West had little trust left in Iran.

“The leadership here has managed to sell us the same carpet four times — and each times it’s a bit more expensive,” said the diplomat, who also spoke anonymously to preserve his ability to work in Tehran.

But several European diplomats said that only direct talks between the United States and Iran could produce a diplomatic agreement to head off a crisis.

“They want a security guarantee that only the United States can give,” one European diplomat said. “They want a guarantee to at least be left alone.”

There is something else Iran wants from the United States, and the nuclear issue is only the latest flashpoint in a grievance that has existed since the Islamic revolution nearly three decades ago. As Mr. Larijani spelled out grievances and slights, it was clear that he was saying among other things, Iran wants respect.

“If America wants to be a superpower, it should learn its manners,” Mr. Larijani said. “One should not humiliate others.”

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran for this article, and David E. Sanger from Washington.

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