DAVOS, Switzerland – Sen. Joseph Biden (search) and Iran's foreign minister clashed Friday over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, with Biden hinting at the possibility of armed conflict unless fears of an Iranian weapons program were put to rest.
The rare and frank public exchange between a senior American politician and a ranking member of the Iranian government came at a dinner during the World Economic Forum (search) held in this Alpine resort town.
There are no official contacts between Washington and Tehran, which President Bush has labeled part of the "axis of evil," and which stands accused by the U.S. administration of trying to make nuclear weapons — something Iran denies.
Biden, D-Del., favors dialogue with Iran and as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Comittee has occasionally met with officials from the Islamic Republic. He is at odds with administration hard-liners who favor isolating Iran for its supposed nuclear weapons plans and alleged backing of terrorists.
Biden's warning to Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi (search) was tempered, with the U.S. senator also urging his own government to rethink its positions.
"You have to grow up and my administration has to grow up, with all due respect, and find out if there is any common ground," he said." We are on the course of unintended consequences."
Biden expressed hope that the Bush administration in its second term would reconsider its position and try to engage Iran, saying that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) was receptive to his "initiatives to reach out to the Iranians for discussions" in her earlier capacity as national security advisor.
"I hope we're all smarter about this, smarter than we've been," he said. Alluding to the refusal by Bush to rule out an armed response to Iran's nuclear plans, he said: "I hope our leadership is brighter because if it's not, it's a very dull picture for the region, and for humanity."
Biden spoke after Kharrazi had said his country's insistence on the right to uranium enrichment was not up for debate at present talks with Germany, France and Britain designed to banish fears over Iran's nuclear plans. Iran has suspended all enrichment activities during the negotiations but has refused to mothball the program, which can be used to produce fuel for reactors or the core of nuclear warheads.
"Iran cannot be ignored," said Kharrazi. Repeating that his country had no intentions of producing nuclear arms, he said that nonetheless, "Iran's rights cannot be denied."
Biden said he favored a commitment from the U.S. administration "that we are not interested in regime change" in Iran in exchange for concessions by Tehran that would banish suspicions about its nuclear programon its nuclear program.
He said that both liberal and conservative U.S. government politicians believed "that it is not in our interest ... for you to acquire nuclear capability for nuclear weapons and intermediate or long range missile technology."