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United States prepared to resume contacts with Iran
( 2003-10-29 09:54) (Agencies)

The United States said on Tuesday it was prepared to resume limited contacts with the Iranian government but relations would not improve until the Iranians share intelligence about al Qaeda members in Iran.

"We are prepared to engage in limited discussions with the government of Iran about areas of mutual interest as appropriate," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

"We have not, however, entered into any broad dialogue with the aim of normalizing relations," he added, in testimony prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We are prepared to meet again in the future, but only if that would serve U.S. interests," he said.

After a series of meetings with Iranian officials in Geneva earlier this year, U.S. officials held their last such talks in early May.

Washington canceled a further round after the May 12 bombings in Riyadh because it believed Iran was sheltering members of al Qaeda, the group blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States as well as the Riyadh bombings.

Armitage repeated the U.S. view that it must "keep all available options on the table" -- code for the possibility of using U.S. military force -- but he placed far greater emphasis on the possibility of resuming talks with Iran.

In his prepared statement, Armitage did not explicitly link resuming contacts with progress on the al Qaeda dispute and he later told reporters that the two were not necessarily linked.

But he did link Iran's cooperation on al Qaeda with the future of relations between the two countries, which have not had diplomatic ties since soon after the revolution of 1979.


"Despite public statements that they would cooperate with other countries, the Iranians have refused repeated requests to turn over or share intelligence about all al Qaeda members and leaders they claim to have in custody," Armitage said.

"As the president (George W. Bush) made clear last week, Iran must change its course on this front: resolution of this issue would be an important step in U.S.-Iranian relations and we cannot move forward without this step," he added.

Armitage later told reporters: "I didn't put any preconditions (for contacts), nor did I say we would do it if they asked. I said that we'll do it when we think it's in our interest on discrete (issues)."

On Sunday Iran said it had given the names of extradited al Qaeda suspects to the U.N. Security Council but declined to give any details of detainees remaining within the country.

Washington dismissed the Iranian move, saying Iran should turn over all al Qaeda members to the United States, their country of origin or third countries.

Washington also voiced concerns about reports of senior al Qaeda members in Iran. The country borders Afghanistan, which U.S. forces invaded nearly two years ago to destroy al Qaeda bases and oust the Taliban leadership that supported them.

Iran, which Bush has described as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea, has ruled out handing over any al Qaeda members to the United States but said it will extradite some of those it has arrested to unspecified "friendly countries."

Despite saying the United States must keep all options on the table, when asked by one senator if regime change was the U.S. policy toward Iran, Armitage crisply replied: "No sir."

He summarized Washington's policy as seeking to eliminate what he called Tehran's "disruptive" activities such as the pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, repression of human rights and state sponsorship of terrorism.

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