updated 1/10/2004 6:03:18 PM ET 2004-01-10T23:03:18

Iran rejected a U.S. overture for talks between the estranged nations, saying Saturday that Washington must first end its hostile policy toward the Islamic state.

The Bush administration indicated Friday it wants to talk with Iran about its nuclear program, human rights and terrorism in the Middle East. But Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the Iranians weren’t swayed by what they view as a lopsided proposal.

“Right now there are no plans to commence a dialogue,” Kharrazi told a news conference Saturday.

President Bush has branded Iran as part of an “axis of evil” along with North Korea and Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime, but Washington sent aid to Iran after a deadly earthquake last month and has expressed hopes for a diplomatic opening.

Iran accepted U.S. help following the quake that killed more than 30,000 people in the ancient city of Bam, but it turned down a U.S. proposal for more aid to be brought in by a high-profile team led by Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who formerly was president of the American Red Cross.

Iran has accused Washington of grandstanding on the aid with no change of heart over the long-standing differences between the two sides. The two countries broke ties after radical students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

“What is important is mutual respect and the principle of equality, in a healthy atmosphere without violence,” Kharrazi said. “For this to happen, the United States must change its policy toward Iran.”

Concerns over the Kurds
Meanwhile, Turkey’s foreign minister met with Kharrazi on Saturday over mutual concerns that Iraqi Kurds could exploit the evolving situation in Iraq to establish an independent Kurdish state.

Earlier this week, Syria’s president visited Turkey and also backed the Turkish position.

Kharrazi and Turkey’s Abdullah Gul said their countries both oppose any independent Kurdish state.

If Iraq is divided, “the problems of the Middle East are going to double,” Gul told reporters at a press conference with Kharrazi.

“For us, the territorial integrity of Iraq is very important,” Kharrazi said.

Turkey has a history of disputes with Iran and Syria, but the three governments are finding common ground in the perceived threat from the Kurds.

Iraq’s Governing Council has said Kurdish demands for an autonomous region should be decided when an elected Iraqi assembly is installed in 2005. The prospect of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish province scares Turkish and Syrian leaders, who fear it would encourage separatist sentiment among their own Kurdish populations.

Turkey fought a 15-year insurgency by Kurdish rebels that claimed 37,000 lives through 1999. The remnants of the insurgency have bases in northern Iraq.

Syrian Kurds have used the political rise of Iraqi Kurds to try to negotiate greater rights from their government, but with little success so far. Iranian Kurds have been inspired by the Iraqi
example to stand up against perceived discrimination over jobs.

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