Iran Brands Prospect of Direct Talks With U.S. 'Positive'

Iran's foreign minister today praised the attendance of a U.S. diplomat at this weekend's nuclear talks as "a new positive approach" and suggested that additional steps toward reconciliation could soon take place.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns is expected for the first time to join colleagues from other world powers when they meet in Geneva with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator on Saturday.

"The new negotiation process [and] the participation of a U.S. diplomat look positive from the outset, but we hope that is reflected in the talks," Manouchehr Mottaki told a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

Meanwhile, Burns met today for about 20 minutes with International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed Elbaradei to discuss Iran's controversial atomic program. Burns did not speak to reporters afterward.

U.S. Joins Iran Nuke Talks

The U.S. has shifted from its confrontational policy of isolating Iran in favor of a diplomatic approach.

"It is, in fact, a strong signal to the entire world that we have been very serious about this diplomacy and we will remain very serious about this diplomacy," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today

The administration is also floating a proposal to open a diplomatic office in Tehran. U.S. diplomats would go to Iran for the first time in almost 30 years, since the countries broke relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"I think there might be an agreement both on the issue of opening a U.S. interest protection bureau in Iran and on the issue of direct flights to Iran," Mottaki said.

This weekend will mark the first time that the U.S. has engaged Iran directly in talks aimed at halting Tehran's nuclear program.

It will also be one of the rare occasions in the past three decades where U.S. and Iranian diplomats sit down at the same table. The move is a turnaround for the Bush administration, which had said it would not talk with Iran until it suspended its nuclear ambitions.

Rice, however, made it clear that Burns will not be there to negotiate with Iran, only to urge Tehran to accept the international offer and suspend its nuclear program.

"The United States has a condition for the beginning of negotiations with Iran, and that condition remains the verifiable suspension of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing activities," Rice said.

Rice called Iran "difficult and dangerous" but quickly added that "any country can change course."

"The United States doesn't have any permanent enemies," Rice said. "And we hope that the signal that we're sending, that we fully support the track that Iran could take for a better relationship with the international community, is one that the United States stands fully behind."

The move is an about face for the Bush administration which resisted calls for direct engagement with Iran for two years, saying they would only do so if Iran suspends its nuclear program.

The decision to send Burns to the meeting in Geneva seems to contradict remarks made by Rice just last month

"We would be willing to meet with them, but not while they continue to inch closer to a nuclear weapon under the cover of talk," Rice said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "So the real question is not: Why won't the Bush administration talk to Tehran? The real question is: Why won't Tehran talk to us?"

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