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Sunday, 17 March, 2002, 13:41 GMT
Iran hints at US talks
Anti-American mural in Tehran
Iran does not want to be America's next target
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By Jim Muir
BBC Tehran correspondent

The Iranian government has signalled its approval for the idea of talks between Iranian and American parliamentarians and intellectuals, provided there were no interferences or threats.

The statement came after the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, offered to meet Iranian deputies to discuss tensions between the two countries.

Holding talks between precise bodies, such as parliament, is not forbidden

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezan-Zadeh

A number of parliamentarians in Iran have welcomed the proposal, but it is still far from becoming a reality.

The government's approval came at a weekly news conference by the cabinet spokesman Abdullah Ramezan-Zadeh.

He said the government accepted any such dialogue as long as it was not characterised by threats or interference in Iran's internal affairs.

There had to be practical steps to begin clearing up the mistrust between the two countries. Starting talks with American law-makers, he said, was up to the Iranian parliamentarians themselves.

He added that he could see nothing wrong with such a dialogue.

But this view from President Khatami's reformist government is far from being the last word.

Faction fighting

That lies with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has so far not made a definitive ruling on the issue.

President Khatami and other Iran cabinet members
Iran's leadership is divided
Without his blessing, it is hard to imagine any deputies daring to take up Senator Biden's offer.

A number of reformist deputies have cautiously welcomed the offer and advocated dialogue.

But they have been virulently attacked by sections of the right-wing press.

One conservative editor said Senator Biden's proposal was aimed at recruiting "mercenaries" from within the Iranian establishment.

Reformists argue that opening a dialogue with the US as soon as possible is vitally important because Iran stands to find itself next in line if and when America attacks Iraq, as is widely expected in the region.

But hard-line opponents say that any discussions with Washington would essentially amount to treason, and that the only way to deal with the Americans is to attack their interests.

Tensions between the two camps have been heightened since President George W Bush included Iran in his so-called 'axis of evil', listing the country with Iraq and North Korea as possessing weapons of mass destruction.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | Americas
Iran warns US against attack
30 Jan 02 | Americas
Iran accuses Bush of war-mongering
31 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran lashes out at Bush
15 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran's slow struggle for reform
13 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iranian MPs stage walkout
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