updated 11/5/2006 6:58:22 PM ET 2006-11-05T23:58:22

Iran said Sunday it was open to negotiations with the United States on Iraq and other regional issues but hinted it would not drop its refusal to talk about its contentious nuclear program.

As the U.N. Security Council geared up for a protracted debate on sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program, Tehran praised Russia for its “softer” stance on the issue.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Iran would consider talks with the U.S. over regional issues, including Iraq, if Washington requested. He would not elaborate, and there was no immediate response from the United States on the offer.

“If there is any official request about regional issues, we are ready to review it,” Hosseini told reporters.

However, he said Iran would not change its position regarding bilateral relations with the U.S., suggesting Tehran would refuse to talk about the nuclear issue. The U.S. has demanded Iran stop enriching uranium — a key step in the manufacture of nuclear weapons — as a precondition to talks about its disputed program.

The United States said in May it wanted to hold direct talks with Iran about its neighbor Iraq — which would have been the most public exchanges by the countries in years.

Iran agreed, and U.S. and Iranian officials said at the time that the talks would focus on the situation in Iraq, not on broader subjects such as Iran’s nuclear program.

Tehran changes its mind
However, Iran then changed its mind, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki rejecting the negotiation on grounds that Americans had raised “other issues” and had tried to use the decision to hold the talks as propaganda.

Iran’s statement on Sunday seemed to indicate the government was once again willing to consider the idea of direct talks with the U.S. over Iraq, which is veering ever closer to civil war. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of interfering in neighboring Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also said the White House believes Tehran has a role to play in stabilizing Iraq, whose government is dominated by Shiite Muslims like Iran’s.

Some Western experts believe Iran is genuinely worried about civil conflict in Iraq and its potential to spill over, although others say Iranian hardliners may have an interest in causing at least some turmoil.

Iranian leaders are believed to have close links to some Iraqi leaders and clerics.

Sunday’s announcement came a few hours after an Iraqi court sentenced Saddam Hussein to death by hanging for crimes against humanity in a mass killing of Iraqi Shiites in 1982.

It also came one day after thousands of Iranians celebrated the 27th anniversary of the U.S. embassy takeover by militant students in Tehran, when 52 Americans were held hostage for over a year.

The U.S., which broke off diplomatic relations with Iran over the embassy takeover, suspects Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a front for developing weapons. Tehran denies the accusations and says its program is for peaceful purposes.

State radio: IAEA inspected facilities
Tehran state-run radio said Sunday the International Atomic Energy Agency officials inspected Iran’s nuclear facilities in Isfahan and Natanz including a new enrichment cascade.

The inspection was the first since Tehran announced it had successfully stepped up its uranium enrichment activities in October.

Iran has repeatedly rejected a package of incentives offered by six world powers because it required it to freeze uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for atomic power or material for a nuclear warhead.

Hosseini said the U.N. Security Council’s push to impose sanctions on Tehran to punish it for continuing enrichment would delay any possible compromise.

“Back to negotiation is the best amendment. Nothing else will be effective and will bear desirable result,” he said. “Russia clearly has announced that they did not support the current draft.”

U.N. council at odds over sanctions
The five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council have so far failed to agree on a resolution imposing sanctions, and negotiations could be long and difficult.

Russia’s foreign minister said Saturday that Moscow would only support sanctions against Iran if they are limited in time and spell out a clear mechanism for lifting them.

“Russia’s stance is better than other ... countries. They have a softer policy. Since the beginning, their stance was different,” Hosseini said.

The European draft resolution would order all countries to cease supplying material or technology that could contribute to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. It would also impose a travel ban and asset freeze on companies, individuals and organizations involved in those programs.

Russia and China, which both have major commercial ties with Iran, have continued to publicly push for dialogue instead of U.N. punishment, despite the collapse last month of an EU attempt to entice Iran into talks. The United States, meanwhile, has said the European draft is too lenient.

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