Tehran reaches out to US in surprise move

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The Independent Online

In an extraordinary about-turn, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reached out to George Bush, suggesting "new solutions" to improve Tehran's fraught relations with the US and the West, as they try to halt Iran's suspected drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

The offer is contained in a letter to Mr Bush, the first such missive by an Iranian head of state to a US leader since diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed in 1979 as a result of the Islamic revolution which brought about the downfall of the Shah and the subsequent siege of the US embassy in Tehran.

Announcing the move, an Iranian government spokesman made no mention of the nuclear row. It was, he said, designed to address broader disagreements between the two countries dating back to 1979 ­ and, some would say, the US-backed coup of 1953 when Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's left-leaning Prime Minister, was overthrown.

Almost certainly however, Mr Ahmadinejad has deliberately played his gambit ahead of an important vote by the UN Security Council which might lead to sanctions. Russia and China, both veto-wielding powers, have made clear they oppose punitive action against Tehran, and the letter may be a bid to tilt other council members the same way. Foreign ministers of the five permanent council powers ­ Britain, the US, France, Russia and China ­ discussed a draft UN resolution last night over dinner in New York.

Initial reaction was to insist that everything still depends on Iranian compliance with the UN demand that it halt its uranium-enrichment programme. The US and its European allies want this demand enshrined in a resolution based on Chapter 7 of the UN Charter which could pave the way for sanctions, and military action if Tehran remained defiant.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said the letter did not seriously address the stand-off. She said it was 17 or 18 pages long and covered history, philosophy and religion. It was not a diplomatic opening, she said. "This letter isn't it. This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort, " Ms Rice said. "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way There's nothing in here that would suggest that we're on any different course than we were before."

Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, declared that the letter contained no change in Tehran's insistence that its enrichment programme is sacrosanct. But the move is another sign of how the two longtime adversaries may be engaged in a delicate dance towards some kind of contact, after a generation of estrangement.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, has said he has been authorised by the White House to hold talks with Iranian officials ­ though none have yet taken place. Any discussions would theoretically be limited to Iraq, but plainly could be extended.

Whatever its precise contents, the letter is a notable departure for Mr Ahmadinejad who, since becoming President last August, has not lost an opportunity to vilify the US, issue bloodcurdling threats against Israel and dare the West to do something about Tehran's nuclear programme.

Speaking in Turkey, Mr Larijani said Iran wanted a peaceful solution to its disputes with the US. He predicted that in time the letter might produce a new diplomatic opening. It proposed "new solutions" for international problems and to improve "the current fragile situation of he world", said a spokesman in Tehran.

The surprise development also coincides with an Iranian diplomatic offensive to allay worries about its nuclear programme, especially in the Gulf. Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, was in Kuwait in April, and last week Mr Larijani travelled to the United Arab Emirates, another US ally in the region.

Today Mr Ahmadinejad travels to Indonesia to assure the rulers of the most populous Islamic country that the nuclear programme is purely peaceful in intent.