US offers talks to end 20 years of hostility with Iran

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The Independent Online

Two decades of bitter hostility between Iran and the United States may be about to end - or at least, that is what the Americans are hoping. An Iranian newspaper yesterday quoted the State Department spokes-man James Rubin as offering unconditional, face-to-face talks with Tehran.

Two decades of bitter hostility between Iran and the United States may be about to end - or at least, that is what the Americans are hoping. An Iranian newspaper yesterday quoted the State Department spokes-man James Rubin as offering unconditional, face-to-face talks with Tehran.

"We have offered to enter into a dialogue without preconditions as to subject matter or outcome," Mr Rubin was quoted as saying in an exclusive interview with Iran News, an English-language newspaper. The aim, he said, was to form "more normal" relations. "If we are to get beyond the current stage of unproductive statements and rhetoric, we must sit down face to face," he was quoted as saying.

The US embassy in Tehran has been closed since the crisis after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Americandiplomats were held hostage in Tehran, beginning 20 years of unrestrained enmity.

The interview was the latest in a series of overtures from Washington. America has offered talks before. President Bill Clinton recently sent a letter to Iran's President, Mohammad Khatami, asking for Iranian help in finding out who was responsible for the bombing of a US military complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 American servicemen. In a relationship as frosty as that of Iran and the US, any communication is a thaw. But Iran dismissed that appeal, saying it was a Saudi matter.

Martin Indyk, the US State Department official responsible for the Middle East, renewed the idea two weeks ago, saying it was time "to engage each other as two great nations - face to face and on the basis of equality and mutual respect. When the government of Iran is ready to engage, we will be too."

But this time America appears to be going further. Earlier this month, Mr Rubin was still threatening military action if Iran did not co-operate in the Saudi base investigation.

Iran has much to gain from an improvement in relations. The US operates an economic embargo against Iran and studiously opposes any economic development that could benefit Tehran.

Mr Khatami has worked hard to improve relations with European countries. But it is much easier for Iran to mend fences with European governments than with the US, which most Iranians blame for the devastating 1980-89 war with Iraq. And, locked in a battle with conservatives over his programme of reform, Mr Khatami has enough problems of his own at home.

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