Iran, U.S. talks appear distant

(AP) - Despite back-channel overtures from Tehran, the chance for breakthrough contacts between Iran and United States is rapidly dimming.

Washington has ruled out direct negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program, while Iran at least publicly says it no longer want to hold talks on Iraq, reports Trend.

Only months ago, the foes were saying they would hold high-level meetings on how to stabilize war-torn Iraq, where Iran holds enormous influence. That raised hopes that talks could also begin on the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But White House press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday that the United States would not consider direct talks with Iran on the nuclear issue until it ends uranium enrichment and allows international inspections to verify it has done so.

"When that happens, all right, then there may be some opportunities," Snow said.

On the other hand, U.S. officials have signaled they are ready for talks on Iraq.

With Iraq's new government in place, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Sunday the time was right for such discussions. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went on Arab television to say Washington recognizes Iran's role in Iraq, as long as it is constructive.

But with the nuclear dispute intensifying, Iran's public stance has hardened.

Iranian officials made no comments on Rice's statements. Earlier this week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi appeared to close the door, saying, "

We don't see any need to talk to America about Iraq."

Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad then railed against the United States on Wednesday, accusing it of seeking to stir up trouble among Iran's ethnic minorities.

Yet through intermediaries, Iran has been showing interest in holding talks with the United States, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday. He did not identify the intermediaries and said the United States had not replied to the overtures.

The United Nations' main nuclear negotiator, Mohammed ElBaradei, appeared to confirm he was one of the intermediaries, saying he met with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani several days ago and later described to Rice "the Iranian point of view, which is rather different from the U.S. point of view."

ElBaradei is among several diplomats who have said that U.S.-Iranian talks could defuse the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.

The Washington Post also reported this week that Iran was using back channels to seek direct talks with the United States over its nuclear program, quoting unidentified U.S. officials and diplomats.

The faltering diplomacy underlines the delicacy of attempts to overcome 27 years of estrangement since the seizure of the U.S. Embassy after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The only publicly acknowledged discussions between the two countries came in early 2003, among lower-level officials in preparation for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Both nations also have sat together in some regional diplomatic groups, including talks after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Tehran has long publicly rejected one-on-one talks with the nation it calls the "Great Satan." Yet its initial acceptance of an Iraq meeting and its backdoor efforts to seek talks show it sees a benefit in sitting down with the United States.

Iran wants to maintain its influence with majority Shiite Muslims in Iraq and is desperate to avoid possible U.N. Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program.

The five permanent Security Council members and Germany met in London on Wednesday to examine possible incentives to persuade Iran to drop its uranium enrichment program. Tehran claims its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, but the United States and its allies fear it is a cover for developing weapons.

"Nobody in the government opposes the talks, but the problem is that they cannot convince ordinary people overnight since during the past 27 years Iran's government openly opposed any contact with the United States," said Mostafa Mirzaian, an independent political researcher based in Tehran.

In March, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to come out and publicly state his approval for the proposed Iraq meetings after some hard-liners sharply criticized the idea.

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