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U.S., allies seek way forward with Iran

U.S., European diplomats meet to plan a way ahead with Iran's suspected nuclear program, hours after Iran's president indicates a willingness to build a new relationship with the U.S.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Top U.S. and European diplomats met Wednesday to plan a way ahead in dealing with Iran's suspected nuclear program, just hours after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated he was willing to build a new relationship with the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana met for talks on Iran just hours after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he was open to finding new ways to deal with the United States. Ahmadinejad said he is preparing new proposals aimed at breaking the impasse with the West over his country's nuclear program.

"We're going to be discussing that," Clinton told reporters at the State Department, adding that the six nations trying to lure Iran back to the negotiating table would have more to say in the coming days. Those countries, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, asked Solana last week to invite Iran to a new round of talks.

Solana said he had not yet received a formal response from Iran to the invitation and declined to comment on Ahmadinejad's comments.

Solana also met Wednesday with Dennis Ross, the U.S. special envoy concentrating on Iran policy. Officials said Ross will travel to the Gulf and some of Iran's neighbors in the region toward the end of the month to discuss new American thinking on Iran. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the trip.

Under former President George W. Bush, Washington had attended only one meeting with senior diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran's top nuclear negotiator. Bush officials said the U.S. would not participate in other talks until Iran suspended uranium enrichment activities that can produce the ingredients for a nuclear weapon.

U.S. open to engagement
But under President Barack Obama, who is open to engagement with Iran, U.S. officials now say that condition has now been dropped. U.S. officials say they may be willing to allow Iran to continue enrichment for a period of time while negotiations are underway — although they insist that a suspension of Iran's activity remains their ultimate goal.

The administration is also conducting a review of Iran policy as it gauges Tehran's responses to the U.S. decision to return to the talks, recent encounters between U.S. and Iranian diplomats and Obama's March video address to the Iranian people.

U.S. officials say they are watching Iran's reactions closely and that positive responses are likely to lead to a next step that would ease rules regarding contacts with Iranian diplomats abroad.

"We're willing to have a direct dialogue with Iran," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said after Ahmadinejad's latest remarks. "If they come up with some new package with regard to their nuclear program, we'll have to take a look and see what it is."

In a speech before an audience of thousands in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman, Ahmadinejad said "circumstances have changed" for the prospects of engagement with the United States and over the nuclear issue.

"The Iranian nation is a generous nation," he said. "It may forget the past and start a new era, but any country speaking on the basis of selfishness will get the same response the Iranian nation gave to Mr. Bush."

The U.S. and its allies have accused Iran of trying to secretly develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian atomic energy program. Iran denies the charges and insists its efforts are aimed at producing nuclear power only.

Iran says it now controls the entire cycle for producing nuclear fuel — from extracting uranium ore to enriching it and producing nuclear fuel. On Thursday, the country inaugurated a new nuclear facility producing uranium fuel pellets for a planned heavy-water nuclear reactor — the final step in the sophisticated nuclear fuel cycle.

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