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Iran spiritual leader OKs talks on Iraq, but ...

Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is considered a hard-liner, but he has condoned limited contacts with the United States.Javad Moghimi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iran's supreme leader gave his backing Wednesday to U.S.-Iran talks about Iraq's security. But he took a tough line, insisting the meeting will deal only with fixing American policies in Iraq, not changing Iran's.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's harsh tone appeared aimed at quieting criticism by hard-liners over the planned meeting in Baghdad with the United States — and signaled that it's unlikely the talks will make progress in reducing tensions between Washington and Tehran. The Iraqi government has been seeking the talks, hoping the two sides can find a way to ease Iraq's turmoil.

Khamenei said Iran agreed to the "face-to-face negotiation" to "remind the U.S. of its responsibilities and duties regarding security" and "give them an ultimatum." He did not specify what the ultimatum was.

"The talks will only be about the responsibilities of the occupiers in Iraq," he said during a speech to a group of clerics in Mashhad city, about 620 miles northeast of Tehran, according to state-run television.

Negotiations in name only?
Iran has called for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq, blaming their presence for the country's bloodshed. Washington accuses Iran of arming and financing militants in Iraq, a claim Tehran denies.

No date has been set yet for the ambassador-level meeting, although the U.S. has said it would take place in a few weeks. The agreement to hold the talks is seen as a political turnabout, but there has been no sign the two sides will back down in the disputes that have fueled tensions between them.

Besides Iraq, the two are in a standoff over Tehran's nuclear program. Vice President Dick Cheney warned Iran last week during a visit to the Gulf that the U.S. and its allies would prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

Iran denies seeking to build nuclear weapons and accuses the U.S. of seeking to topple its government.

Hard-liners in the cleric-led government have long rejected opening contacts with the country considered Iran's top enemy. Dozens of hard-line students demonstrated Wednesday in front of the presidential palace in downtown Tehran to protest the decision to hold talks with the Americans.

Says Iran hasn't changed its stance
Khamenei underlined that regardless of the Baghdad meeting, Iran maintains its basic rejection of negotiating with the U.S.

"They think the Islamic Republic has changed its firm, logical and defendable policy in rejecting negotiation with the U.S. They are wrong," he said. "How it is possible to negotiate with the arrogant, bullying, expansionist and colonialist government of the U.S.?"

Khamenei is considered a hard-liner, but he also has a pragmatic streak and has condoned past, limited contacts with the United States.

The Shiite-led Iraqi government has been pressing both sides to talk, saying the Iranian-American disputes are destabilizing the country. The Baghdad government is backed by the U.S. but is also very close to Iran, which has considerable influence in Iraq.

Iraq and Iran's foreign ministers discussed the coming talks in Baghdad on the sidelines of a gathering of Islamic nations in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Wednesday.

"I think this is a very good opportunity to ease the regional tension, to help the Iraqi government to succeed in its effort to stabilize the situation," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said of the Baghdad meeting.

His Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, said his talks with Zebari were "fruitful" but declined further comment.