Iran Reportedly Set for Talks With U.S.

The Associated Press
Friday, January 19, 2007; 5:41 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- President Jalal Talabani said in remarks published Friday that the Iranians were ready to meet with the U.S. for talks about security issues _ part of an apparent effort by Talabani to encourage a dialogue between two nations that are increasingly at odds, and vital to Iraq.

Talabani's comments, in an interview with the respected pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, came amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran. In recent weeks, the U.S. has built up naval forces in the Persian Gulf and raided an Iranian liaison office in northern. Iran meanwhile has stepped up military operations along its border, Iranians arriving in Iraq say.

"During my last visit to Tehran, I discussed the matter with Iranian officials who said they are ready to meet the Americans but they said that the Americans should publicly announce their readiness," Talabani said in the interview. He was last in Iran in late November.

Talabani, currently on a visit to Syria, said "the Iranians showed flexibility. I will say it for history that they said they are ready for an understanding with America from Afghanistan to Lebanon. They are ready for discussions in order to reach results that please both sides."

Talabani's office confirmed the accuracy of the quoted comments.

Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment because Friday is the holy day in the Muslim world.

The United States accuses Iran of helping Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in Iraq, and of trying to build a nuclear weapons program. Washington has also asked Tehran to end support for militant groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian group Hamas.

In his interview, Talabani described two failed efforts by U.S. and Iranian officials to hold secret talks last year.

At one point last year, Talabani said, the Iranians proposed a three-way meeting with U.S. and Iraqi officials, and the Americans accepted. The talks were to be held in the town of Dokan, in Iraq's northern Kurdish area.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Talabani told the newspaper, traveled to Dokan a day before the scheduled meeting. But the Iranians boycotted, Talabani said, because they thought the secrecy of the meeting had been compromised.

The Iranians proposed another meeting before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government took office in May, Talabani said, but the Americans wanted to wait until the Cabinet was formed. The Iranians "considered that procrastination and canceled the meeting," he said.

Earlier this week, Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003 rejected an Iranian offer to help the United States stabilize Iraq, and for Tehran to end its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

State Department deputy spokesman Tom H. Casey on Thursday said he had no knowledge of the offer. But he said the U.S. is open to talks with Tehran.

Meanwhile, Iranian reinforcements were reported along the Iraqi border in the northern Kurdish region in response to what residents said was an intensification of over-flights by U.S. warplanes in recent days.

Travelers arriving in Iraq's northern Sulaimaniyah province said they saw dozens of Revolutionary Guards with vehicles carrying 106 millimeter cannons. They chanted "death to American. Death to Israel."

Mamosta Aziz, a senior official at the Kurdistan Ministry of Peshmerga, or militias, said Iranian forces had remained on their side of the border.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told state-run television Friday that Iran will file a formal complaint with the U.N. Security Council over the U.S.'s detention of five Iranians in northern Iraq.

The U.S. military stormed an Iranian government office in the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil on Jan. 11 and arrested the Iranians, whom it accuses of links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard faction that is allegedly supporting insurgents.

Iran says the arrested men were diplomats and the office a consulate, but the U.S. disputes this.