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U.S. may use Iraq meeting to engage Iran
US Secretary of State Colin Powell may use a conference on Iraq later this month as an opportunity to engage directly with Iran, officials said on Friday, despite a looming nuclear crisis.
While insisting "nothing at this moment is planned," one senior official told Reuters "there may be opportunities" for Powell to speak about U.S. concerns "more directly" than just in the conference's general meeting, set for Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt's Red sea resort, on Nov. 22 and 23.
Another official also suggested a U.S.-Iran contact was possible. "Stay tuned. The secretary will be there and Iran will be there," he said, declining to be more specific.
The United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic since the 1980 hostage crisis and only intermittent contacts since then, despite Tehran's growing ability to thwart some of President George W. Bush's major objectives, like stability in Iraq.
Bush has been under pressure from many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment to begin a dialogue with Tehran but his administration has been divided over whether and to what degree the United States might reach out.
U.S. officials said that debate continued and they indicated any gesture by Powell would be modest.
The administration has refused to participate in European negotiations that aim to persuade Tehran to abandon a nuclear program that Washington insists is aimed at producing weapons.
Iraq's neighbors, the United Nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries are expected at this month's conference.
Iraq's interim government hopes to secure broader security cooperation from its neighbors to patrol their borders and combat the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq.
The senior U.S. official, who spoke anonymously, said Powell would tell the Iranians that "Iran, like all of Iraq's neighbors, needs to act responsibility in support of the government of Iraq and not undercut it."
"There may be opportunities at this meeting for Powell to make that point and other points about Iran's behavior more directly -- but nothing at this moment is planned," he said.
He said he did not know how a direct U.S.-Iran contact might occur but noted that in November 2001 Powell took the opportunity of a post-Sept. 11 meeting on Afghanistan to shake hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi at the United Nations in New York.
"You never know how it will work out," the official said.
He said that while the United States considered Iran's behavior dangerous or difficult in a number of areas, "if they've been prepared to do something (to change that behavior), we've always been prepared to talk."