News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqRice open to bilateral talks with Iran at meeting

Rice open to bilateral talks with Iran at meeting

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Reuters: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is open to direct talks with Iran over its role in Iraq when she attends a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors and world powers, the State Department said on Thursday. By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, April 5 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is open to direct talks with Iran over its role in Iraq when she attends a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors and world powers, the State Department said on Thursday.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice did not rule out bilateral talks with the Iranians at the ministerial-level meeting, which Iraq’s government says is likely early next month at an as-yet undisclosed location.

“We will not exclude any particular diplomatic interaction. There was one at the envoys level … and the same would hold true for the secretary,” McCormack told reporters.

At a meeting in Baghdad last month of Iraq’s neighbors, then U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had brief encounters with both Iranian and Syrian delegates at the talks and McCormack said it was possible Rice could do the same.

The United States accuses Iran of destabilizing Iraq and McCormack said Rice could raise this with Tehran at the Iraq conference, which is expected to be attended by Iraq’s neighbors as well as world powers.

He reiterated the U.S. position that when it came to discussing Iran’s nuclear program, Washington would only meet with Tehran once it had suspended its sensitive uranium enrichment work.

Iran strongly denies it is meddling in Iraq. The United States has since January been holding five Iranians whom Washington accuses of being linked to attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

FIVE DETAINEES

McCormack said the United States was considering a request from Iran to grant consular access to the five, who he said were classified as “security detainees” and were being held under Iraqi law and according to U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“That is being taken under advisement,” he said of the Iranian request, adding that the International Committee of the Red Cross had already been granted visits to the detainees.

McCormack said consular access had been allowed on previous occasions to such detainees on a “case by case” basis but a decision had not yet been taken on the five.

“As long as they continue to pose a threat to (U.S.) forces they are not going to be released,” he said.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe also gave no indication the United States planned to release the five and instead said U.S. officials would work with their Iraqi counterparts on “what course of justice should be carried out to deal” with them.

The United States has welcomed Iran’s decision to free 15 British sailors seized last month and who returned home on Thursday.

In Crawford, Texas, President George W. Bush held an hour-long video conference call with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during which Bush commended the British “on their resolve in bringing the situation to a peaceful resolution,” said Johndroe.

“We are pleased that there was a successful outcome to this situation,” he said, but said the real issue is “Iran and Iran’s behavior.”

Johndroe said the hope now is that Iran will move forward with complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at stopping uranium enrichment.

McCormack also said he hoped Iran’s release of the British sailors would lead to a “change of heart” on behalf of Tehran on other issues, including their nuclear program.

The United States and others accuse Iran of try to build a nuclear bomb but Tehran says their program is for peaceful power purposes. (Additional reporting by Steve Holland)

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