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US Calls for Talks with Iran After Rafsanjani's Election
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The United States yesterday called for talks with Iran after former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected as new chief of Iran's powerful Assembly of Experts.

"We would hope that reasonable individuals in Iran would see the positive opportunity given to it by the international community to enter negotiations and be able to achieve a peaceful nuclear program while still reassuring everyone else that it is not simply a cover for building a nuclear weapon," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

"I'd like to believe that there are individuals in the Iranian leadership that would want to take what is in effect a rather unique and important opportunity, to allow Iran to engage with the rest of the international community," Casey said.

The United States and Iran have held two rounds of ambassador-level talks on Iraqi security since May 28.

Washington has no diplomatic relations with Tehran since April 1980, five months after Iranian students occupied the American embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

The United States has accused Iran of fueling violence in Iraq and supporting militants there. But Tehran always denies the allegations.

The Assembly of Experts is an 86-seat body with the power to appoint, supervise and even dismiss the Islamic Republic's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It has, however, not exercised the power to dismiss the supreme leader and is not believed to have directly intervened in policy-making.

The clerics, many of them in their 60s or more, met to replace Speaker Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, who died in July. "(Rafsanjani) was elected as the head of the Assembly of Experts," assembly spokesman Hossein Habibzadeh said.

Rafsanjani's victory is a further step in his political recovery at the expense of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a vociferous critic of the West who beat the pragmatic, mid-ranking cleric in the 2005 presidential race, analysts said.

But the change will not herald a shift in Iran's foreign or nuclear policy nor would it have a big impact on the assembly's tendency to stay clear of day-to-day politics, analysts added.

Rafsanjani, president in the 1990s, has increasingly sided with pro-reform politicians opposed to Ahmadinejad. In the speaker contest, he beat Ayatollah Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, an oversight body reformists blame for blocking many of their candidates in presidential and parliamentary elections.

Rafsanjani won 41 votes to Jannati's 34, Iranian media said.

Rafsanjani scored another victory in December by topping the vote in the Teheran constituency in the December assembly election, well ahead of a cleric seen as close to Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani, who has had a hand in virtually every major political development in the country during and since the 1979 Islamic revolution, has become an increasingly vocal critic of Ahmadinejad's government, albeit usually in veiled terms.

Before going into yesterday's closed-door session of the assembly, he told reporters: "At the same time as defending our rightful positions, we should not provoke and we should not provide an excuse (to Iran's enemies)."

Opponents of Ahmadinejad accuse the president of drawing the wrath of world powers and provoking UN sanctions in a standoff over Teheran's atomic plans because of firebrand speeches against the West. They say quiet diplomacy would be better.

Analysts said Rafsanjani's win showed his skill in bridging more than one political camp and would enhance his standing with traditional conservatives in the seminaries of Qom, the heartland of the clerical establishment south of Teheran.

(Xinhua News Agency, China Daily via agencies September 5, 2007)

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