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Sunday, October 08, 2006

US secretly woos Khatami

The Bush administration made secret overtures to former Iran president Mohammed Khatami during his visit to the United States last month in an attempt to establish a back channel via the ex-leader.

American officials made the approach as part of a strategy to isolate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Khatami's hard-line successor, by using the former president as a conduit to the Iranian people.

Mohammed Khatami at the UN

They also hoped that Mr Khatami would report his conversations to senior members of Iran's theocratic regime who are wary of the current president. Diplomatic sources said that "third parties" were authorised by Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary of state responsible for relations with Iran, to talk to Mr Khatami in a step towards "engagement" with senior Iranians.

The clandestine contacts with Mr Khatami reflect a significant shift in American policy, away from preparation for military action and towards increased diplomatic pressure on Iran, which is defying United Nations demands to suspend its nuclear programme.

The US wants to persuade the EU and the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran.

Foreign ministers from the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, who met in London on Friday, agreed that talks should start swiftly on what form economic sanctions should take.

Of the contact with Mr Khatami, a western diplomat said: "The message was that the US is prepared to engage with Iran beyond the nuclear issue." Mr Khatami was the highest-ranking Iranian to visit Washington since Iran's Islamist revolutionaries overran the US Embassy in 1979, when diplomatic relations were suspended.

President George W Bush personally approved a visa for the former president, regarded by western officials as a "reformist" who is more pragmatic than Mr Ahmadinejad, so that he could take part in a UN conference in New York. American contacts with such a senior Iranian are sensitive because the US and the European Union insist that there can be no talks with Teheran until Iran's uranium enrichment programme is suspended.

Tom Casey, a US State Department spokesman, told The Sunday Telegraph: "I'm not aware of any contacts, either direct or indirect, between US government officials and President Khatami."

But other diplomats confirmed the contacts. "I can categorically tell you it happened," said one. "It's about isolating Ahmadinejad, who is not the real power in the government anyway. The theocratic leadership is very sceptical about him."

London Telegraph
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