Iran's Former President Offers to Help Restore Ties With U.S.

Iran's former president offered Saturday to help restore ties with the United States, breaking with hard-liners nervous about American-led forces in neighboring Iraq.

Hashemi Rafsanjani still occupies a powerful position in Iran as the head of the powerful Expediency Council, which advises Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Rafsanjani as saying one way to resolve "the problem of Iran-U.S. relations" would be to hold a referendum on the matter.

"The other option is to leave it to the Expediency Council," he said.

Either way, Khamenei would have the final say, but "when we (Expediency Council) approve an issue, he (Khamenei) usually approves it," Rafsanjani added.

Khamenei has repeatedly rejected any talk about restoring U.S. ties, cut since militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

The mention of a referendum represents a marked shift by Rafsanjani, who has openly sided with hard-liners since stepping down as president in 1997. Reformers have been pushing for such a vote.

Rafsanjani's suggestion comes amid heated debates in Iranian political circles on the possible threat posed by the U.S.-led coalition's victory in toppling Saddam Hussein.

Reformers say Iran, listed with Iraq and North Korea as part of President Bush's "axis of evil," could be next on America's target list if unelected hard-liners continue to resist voter reforms.

More than 200 activists signed a petition calling for the release of all political prisoners, the reopening of newspapers and the halt of arbitrary disqualification of candidates as ways to avoid U.S. threats, IRNA reported Saturday.

Rafsanjani also is apparently trying to mend fences with reformers and improve his popular image after a humiliating defeat in legislative elections in 2000.

During Friday prayer sermons this month, Rafsanjani said he thought Iran could work with the United States, provided it gave up its "colonialist and anti-Islamic policies."