Iran Agrees to Talk to U.S. About Iraq

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said Sunday that Tehran has agreed to a formal request from the U.S. to talk about security in Iraq during meetings in Baghdad, the country's official news agency reported.

The report said Iran had received the request through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which often acts as an intermediary for the U.S. in the country.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who is on a Middle East visit, responded Sunday by saying Washington is willing to talk to Iran as long as the conversations are limited to Iraq. But Lea Anne McBride said she couldn't confirm specifics, such as whether the U.S. had made a formal request.

"We are willing to have that conversation limited to Iraq issues at the ambassador level," said McBride. She said the willingness is not a new position, but reflects an earlier-stated U.S. position.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had said last week that he expected such Iranian-U.S. talks to happen in Baghdad soon.

During a meeting on Iraq's future in Baghdad two months ago, mid-level U.S. and Iranian officials did meet briefly and discuss Iran. Mid-level officials also met briefly at last weekend's Iraq summit at an Egyptian resort.

"Iran has agreed to this (negotiation) after consultation with Iraqi officials, in order to lessen the pain of the Iraqi people, support the Iraqi government and establish security and peace in Iraq," the agency quoted Mohammad Ali Hosseini, spokesman of Iran's foreign ministry, as saying.

The report said the negotiations will be held in Baghdad.

"Time and level of negotiation team will be decided by the end of the week," Hosseini was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of the hardline Kayhan newspaper, called negotiations "a big and strategic mistake," according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

"I believe negotiation with the U.S. is like greeting Satan and dancing with wolves," he was quoted as saying.

But Iran's state-run radio cast the negotiations in a more positive light.

"If the U.S. shows that it has learned from its past mistakes and is ready to enter a serious and honest interaction with Iran, then it is possible to talk about change in the sphere of ties of the two countries," the radio reported in its commentary.

Last week, Hosseini said Iran was willing, under the right conditions, to improve its chilly relations with the U.S. despite having passed up the opportunity for high-level, direct talks at the second Iraq conference.

Both nations had sounded interested in meeting at the summit, but the only direct contact came in a casual chat between two lower ranking officials.

U.S. officials said before the conference that any meeting with the Iranians would be limited to the subject of Iraq, where the U.S. accuses Iran of undermining the fragile government and exporting particularly lethal roadside bombs, a charge that Iran denies.

Washington also accuses Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but Tehran insists that the program is only intended for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity.

On Friday, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, on an aircraft carrier about 150 miles (240 kilometers) from the Iranian coast, warned Iran that the U.S. and its allies would prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

In response to Cheney's comments, Hosseini on Sunday accused Washington of spreading fear in the Middle East.

"The U.S. is pursuing the creation of crisis, panic, fear and insecurity in the region, which we strongly oppose," he said.

Iran's Defense Minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, dismissed Cheney's statements as "psychological operations" on Sunday and cautioned the U.S. against military action, according to ISNA.

"I warn Mr. Cheney and other American leaders that response by the Iranian nation and its armed forces to any military option will be strong, swift and surprising," he was quoted as saying.