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LONDON: The United States wants to thaw diplomatic relations with Iran after a nearly 30-year freeze, and hopes to start this week at a conference on promoting peace in Iraq, a top U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said he hoped his boss, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would open direct talks with her Iranian counterpart during the conference, which begins Thursday at Egypt's Sharm el-Sheik resort.
"That meeting will be important because Secretary Rice will be seated around a table with the Syrian foreign minister, and we hope and think with the Iranian foreign minister," Burns said in speech at the Chatham House think-tank. "We look forward to a good discussion around that table in Sharm el-Sheik."
Iran has yet to confirm a face-to-face meeting between Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but Burns said the two had a lot to talk about. "It's been 30 years since the United States and Iran have been able to negotiate on serious issues," he said.
Relations with Iran have been frozen since the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a situation that Burns said had given America its "most unusual diplomatic relationship with any country in the world."
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Relations reached a nadir after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Iran's presidency. The United States has accused his government of covertly seeking nuclear weapons and of funding terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said that direct talks with Iran to improve security in Iraq could only happen once Iran meets U.N. requirements concerning scaling back its nuclear program. Iran has resisted that.
Preventing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from threatening the security of other countries is one of Washington's greatest challenges, but Burns said room had to be made for dialogue.
"Surely it is better for us to take the time now to see diplomacy play out, both on the nuclear issue, and on the issue of Iraq, and see if it's possible to build a few bridges with our two countries," he said, adding that the summit offered both countries a chance to collaborate on an issue of common concern.
"This is an opportunity for us to be talking together, directly, and to be working together, directly, for the good of the people of Iraq," he said. "We hope the Iranians will take advantage of this opportunity that all of us in the international community are giving it."
While Burns talked up the United States' desire for negotiations, he also said an Iranian rebuff risked drawing more sanctions and deeper international isolation. He said that if Iran refused to freeze its enrichment program before May 24, there was "a strong possibility" that the U.S. would consider a new sanctions resolution.
"We have essentially offered (the Iranians) two paths; we prefer — we, the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans prefer — the path of peaceful negotiations ... but if (the Iranians) cannot accept it, there's a path called sanctions, and economic and political pressure," he said.
He sounded an upbeat note, however, on the future of U.S.-Iranian relations.
"Right now we're very much in conflict on the issues of the day," Burns said. "But you do have to have ambition. And our ambition would be that you see the two countries begin to talk, and you see the prospect of a brighter and more peaceful Middle East. That has to be the ultimate ambition to which all of us are working."
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