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US-Iran Talks Signal 'Possible Thaw' in Ties
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While US officials played down the importance of eventual talks with Iran on Iraq, analysts said they could be a significant start toward defusing a generation of US-Iranian hostility.

"This is a very, very positive opening, potentially," Judith Kipper, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of chances for the first direct discussions between Teheran
and Washington since their diplomatic break in 1980.

"This is just turning a page. It may produce something (and) if it does it may lead to other things," said Kipper, who heads the New York-based council's Middle East Forum.

Iran's announcement on Thursday that it was willing to discuss the carnage in Iraq with a US delegation was a bright spot in ties that had sunk to new lows amid recriminations over Teheran's nuclear ambitions.

But Washington, which last year authorized Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Iraq to reach out for Iranian help in stabilizing the embattled country, was quick to minimize expectations from the overture.

Officials here stressed there would be no negotiations, only an exchange over US concerns that Iran was backing murderous Shi'ite Muslim militias in Iraq and providing materiel for deadly roadside bomb attacks.

Above all, they were firm that any talks would be totally separate from those on the Iranian nuclear issue, which is currently before the UN Security Council.

Analysts said Iran had as much reason as the Americans to fear an all-out civil war in Iraq, where violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis has escalated three years after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Kipper saw other benefits for the Iranians from the offer of talks: "It demonstrates to the world that they are an important player, the US needs them, the US is in a quagmire (in Iraq), can't get out without them."

No progress has been reported in organizing meetings between the countries, which have had occasional contact through the United Nations or multinational forums such as deliberations on the future of Afghanistan.

US officials showed little optimism that direct talks would make much of a change in the situation on the ground in Iraq, and suggested Teheran was simply trying to take heat off its nuclear dispute with the West.

But the possibility of a new approach to Teheran, even limited in scope, could be welcome to Washington as its deals with the administration of President Mohammed Ahmadinejad.

(China Daily March 20, 2006)


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