Tuesday, November 23, 2004

ABC News: Powell Has Dinner Chat with Iranian Minister

ABC News: Powell Has Dinner Chat with Iranian Minister: "Powell Has Dinner Chat with Iranian Minister
Reuters

Nov 22, 2004 — By Saul Hudson

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - Secretary of State Colin Powell had "polite dinner conversation" seated alongside his Iranian counterpart on Monday in the most extensive, high-level contact between the countries in years.

Iran and the United States, which are locked in a crisis over Tehran's nuclear program, do not have diplomatic relations but occasionally over the past few years their senior envoys have crossed paths at international meetings.

The Bush administration has been under pressure from many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment to begin a dialogue with Tehran but it has been divided over whether and to what degree it might reach out.


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"During the course of dinner the secretary and the Iranian foreign minister engaged in polite dinner conversation," said a senior State Department official, who asked not to be named.

Substantive issues such as the nuclear crisis and Iraq are not considered "polite conversation," he added.

The Egyptians, hosts of the international conference, arranged the seating at a first-night dinner for countries' top representatives, putting Powell between the Iranian, Kamal Kharrazi, and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, the official said.

It was not clear if Powell knew before the meal who would be at his elbow for what would his most extensive encounter with an Iranian as the top U.S. diplomat.

In November 2001, Powell took the opportunity of a post-Sept. 11 meeting on Afghanistan to shake hands with Kharrazi at the United Nations in New York.

Powell has since attended two international donor meetings attended by Iranian diplomats, according to U.S. officials.

Any gesture toward Iran at the Iraq meeting would be modest, U.S. officials said before the meeting.

TWO DECADES

The United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic since a hostage crisis more than two decades ago. It has had only intermittent contacts since then, despite Tehran's growing ability to thwart some of Washington's major objectives, such as stability in Iraq.

In the days leading up to the conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Powell played down the possibility of a meeting to discuss bilateral issues. He also angered Iran with new accusations that it was seeking to adapt its missiles to carry a nuclear warhead.

But Powell, whose cautious support of European nuclear negotiations with Iran faces opposition from some Bush administration hawks, noted there would be conference social events and that he was "not a discourteous man."

The encounter came on the same day as Iran suspended sensitive nuclear activities that could be used to make a bomb in a move likely to thwart U.S. efforts to report it to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

The United States accuses oil-rich Iran of pursuing a nuclear bomb and has vowed to stop it achieving that goal. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and only to generate power.

On Tuesday, the second and final day of the conference, Powell also plans to hold a bilateral meeting with his counterpart from Syria, another country Washington has strained ties with."

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