- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday urged Iranians to continue to speak out against their government, but he insisted that the Bush administration would not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs and left the door open for renewed diplomatic contacts on nuclear and terrorism issues.

Mr. Powell said Iran’s ruling clerics should provide better leadership domestically to meet the demands of thousands of protesting students, rather than “deflect” their problems on Washington.

“Our policy is to encourage people to demonstrate for their views,” Mr. Powell told reporters during his flight to the annual meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Cambodia’s capital.

“We have long said that there is desire on the part of the people, especially the young people of Iran, to see reform in their political system,” he said. “They are not happy with the leadership they are receiving from their so-called secular or religious leaders and it’s now manifesting itself in the streets of Tehran and other cities.”

The latest wave of protests “certainly validates the point that we have been making all along.”

The demonstrations, though not as massive, continued into a seventh day yesterday, with police reining in Islamic militants who attacked protesters with clubs and chains on previous nights.

Iran’s Islamic government has accused the United States of stirring up the unrest, during which scores of people have been injured or detained, mainly in clashes with hard-line vigilantes loyal to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Nearly three-fourths of the 290 lawmakers in the country’s parliament, including a number of prominent reformers, signed a letter yesterday condemning what they said was U.S. interference in Iran’s internal affairs.

The street protests come during a political deadlock between the hard-liners and the reformists loyal to President Mohammed Khatami.

“We are not out there inside Iran fomenting them,” Mr. Powell said. “Iran, as usual, is always just trying to deflect its problems onto others.”

Asked about dialogue with Iran, with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations, Mr. Powell said there are “ways of having messages go back and forth.” When asked whether Washington would resume talks that were suspended last month in Geneva, he said: “To suspend a meeting, a talk, for one reason or another, doesn’t mean you suspended something forever.”

The Bush administration, which included Iran, North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in the “axis of evil,” maintains that Tehran is developing a nuclear weapons program, dismissing its arguments that facilities under construction were meant to satisfy the country’s energy needs.

On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report based on the findings of its inspections that Iran should allow tougher and surprise visits by the U.N. nuclear watchdog to suspect sites.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the European Union, which advised Iran to accept the tougher inspection regime during a meeting of foreign ministers Monday in Luxembourg, will probably halt talks aimed at improving trade ties until Iran makes progress on the nuclear issue and on human rights.

“We had an interim review of progress, and it’s not been satisfactory,” Mr. Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp. “If they are not making progress on each of these tracks … then it is highly probable that European ministers will decide to have to park the negotiations on the trade and cooperation agreement.”

Khalil Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, told the Associated Press yesterday that Iran was “studying positively” the IAEA inspection request, in the face of mounting international criticism.

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