State OK with private, unofficial talks with Iran

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The State Department said yesterday that it encourages contacts between Americans — including former U.S. officials — and Iranians, but denied reports that it had opened back-channel talks with the Islamic republic.

A private initiative started by Thomas R. Pickering, a former top U.S. diplomat, has resulted in several meetings with Iranian academics and others with links to the government in Tehran, which were held neither in the United States, nor in Iran.

State Department officials said that Mr. Pickering informed them about his intentions before any meetings took place and that the department told him that it had nothing against the contacts.

“It is a set of private discussions by private individuals, and we are happy to see those move forward. But no one should mistake that for any kind of formal, informal or any kind of channel. Period,” spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

“It is not a channel for negotiation. It is not a channel to pass messages,” he said. “It has no official standing whatsoever.”

London’s Independent newspaper reported yesterday that “Iran and the United States have been engaged in secret ‘back-channel’ discussions for the past five years on Iran’s nuclear program and the broader relationship between the two sworn enemies.”

Mr. Casey said that description was an exaggeration, saying, “That was probably one of the most grossly overwritten stories I’ve seen in a long time.”

Mr. Pickering was quoted as saying that “some of the Iranians were connected to official institutions inside Iran” and that “each side kept their officials informed.”

The group was organized by the U.N. Association of the USA, and its work was facilitated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a government-funded think tank chaired by the former chief U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq, Rolf Ekeus, the Independent said.

Mr. Pickering told The Washington Times yesterday that he had not suggested that the contacts had any “official sanction.” Asked whether the talks have made any difference in policy-making on either side, he said, “Historians will have to decide whether they have or can make a difference.”

The Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York also would not comment.

The White House said that “clear channels” exist for communication with Iran and that the approach described in the Independent article “isn’t one of them.”

Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Two years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to talk to her Iranian counterpart about anything on his mind, but only if Tehran suspends its uranium-enrichment program.

The West accuses Iran of trying to build a nuclear weapon, but Tehran insists its program is only for civilian use.

The Bush administration also says that Iran is contributing to the violence in Iraq. There have been meetings between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad, but they have failed to produce specific results.

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