Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Bush Allows Rare Visit to Iran Despite Nuke Crisis

International News Article | "Bush Allows Rare Visit to Iran Despite Nuke Crisis

By Saul Hudson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration has allowed a rare, cultural visit to Iran, approving a trip this week by the congressional librarian in a small gesture to the Islamic republic despite a looming nuclear crisis.

The move came as newly re-elected President Bush pursues a tough line against Iran, including a push this month for the U.N. Security Council to take up the case of Tehran's nuclear ambitions for possible international sanctions.

James Billington, the congressional librarian and a presidential appointee, arrived in Iran on the weekend hoping to expand the legislature's collection of Iranian publications on a trip that ends on Friday, his office said.

He was invited by Iran's chief librarian, a post President Mohammad Khatami used to hold.

While U.S. officials played down the significance of the trip, Western diplomats and analysts said the administration appeared to want to keep up some level of contact with the country despite tense relations.

The trip is symbolic because the United States, unlike its key European allies, has generally shunned diplomatic overtures to a country Bush labeled as part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea and prewar Iraq.

"Allowing certain exchanges doesn't seem to me totally inconsistent with the prospect that some day Iran might change those areas of behavior that are so important to us," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

The trip and other occasional U.S. gestures in recent years such as aid for earthquake victims and wrestling matches were unlikely to quickly improve relations, he added.

The United States cut ties with Iran in 1980 and the enmity between the two countries still runs deep. On Wednesday, thousands of Iranians burned the Stars-and-Stripes to mark the 25th anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by radical Islamic students.

The Bush administration accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear bombs and wants the International Atomic Energy Agency to report it at a Nov. 25 meeting to the Security Council for defying the watchdog's demands to halt uranium enrichment.

Iran says its programs are peaceful and that it has the right to enrich uranium, which can be used for power or to make bombs.

The deadlock could present Bush with one of the toughest challenges of his second term because his options are limited and many in Tehran are determined to acquire a nuclear arsenal, according to political analysts.

With European powers seeking to resolve the nuclear crisis through negotiations, a Western diplomat welcomed the librarian's trip. "Anything that helps create better atmospherics is positive," he said. "


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