- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

TEHRAN (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said yesterday he was willing to improve relations with the United States but that the moment was not right because it would make his country more vulnerable to U.S. espionage.

Ayatollah Khamenei said restoring ties with the United States now would “provide opportunity for security agents to come and go, as well as for espionage.”

“It has no benefit for Iranian nation,” state radio quoted him as saying at a student group meeting in the central province of Yazd. It would be an “opportunity for U.S. infiltration, traffic of their intelligence agents and espionage of Iran.”

Iran last year said it uncovered spy rings organized by the United States and its Western allies and detained a four Iranian-Americans, who were later released. The arrests prompted the United States to warn its citizens against traveling to Iran. It accused authorities there of a “disturbing pattern” of harassment.

The United States and Iran have had no diplomatic ties since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. accusations of Iranian support for armed groups in Iraq have raised tensions.

“I would be the first one to support these relations,” said Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final say in all state matters. “But for the time being, [restoring ties] is harmful and we should not pursue it.”

Washington has refused to hold talks with Iran over the issue of diplomatic ties until Tehran suspends uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to produce fuel for both nuclear energy and weapons.

But the two countries have held three rounds of ambassador-level negotiations on security in Iraq, breaking the 27-year diplomatic freeze.

Iran says its nuclear program is intended solely for energy production, and the ayatollah reiterated yesterday that his country would continue to pursue it to generate about 20,000 megawatts of electricity in the next two decades.

Washington’s push for a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran was undermined by the release of a new U.S. intelligence report last month saying that Tehran suspended development of nuclear weapons development under international pressure in 2003. It was a dramatic turnaround from the previous U.S. stance that Iran restarted the program in 2005.

President Bush yesterday said that part of the reason for his trip to the Middle East this month is “absolutely” about efforts to contain Iran’s influence in the region.

Mr. Bush said that on his trip, which starts next week to Israel and Arab countries, he expects questions about the report, known as the National Intelligence Estimate.

“I will clarify to them that the NIE means that Iran is still a danger,” he said in an interview with Reuters news agency. “I will remind them that a country that can suspend a program can easily start a program.”

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