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US Says Iranian Letter Not Diplomatic Breakthrough


U.S. officials say an unusual letter to President Bush from his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not present any breakthrough in the current dispute over Iran's nuclear program. The response came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to discuss the nuclear issue in New York with her counterparts from the other permanent U.N. Security Council member countries.

The Ahmadinejad letter, conveyed to the White House by the Swiss government, is believed to be the first communication of its kind since diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran were severed in 1979.

However administration officials are dismissing comments from Tehran that the message is a significant overture in the frozen relationship, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying there is nothing in the letter to suggest the parties are on any different course than they were before it arrived.

Secretary Rice made the comments in a session with the Associated Press in New York as she prepared to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue over dinner with her colleagues from the other veto-wielding Security Council member countries.

She told the AP the Ahmadinejad letter was 17 or 18 pages long and covered history, philosophy and religion, but was not a diplomatic opening or anything of the sort, and did not address the nuclear issue in a concrete way.

There were similar comments from White House spokesman Scott McClellan who said President Bush had been briefed on the contents of the letter, but that it didn't appear to do anything to address international concerns on the nuclear issue.

Earlier, other administration officials said the gesture by Iran might be intended to complicate U.S. efforts to get a binding Security Council resolution demanding that Iran end uranium enrichment. Among them was U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who spoke to reporters at the White House:

"Certainly one of the hypotheses you'd have to examine is whether and in what way the timing of the dispatch of that letter is connected with trying in some manner to influence the debate before Security Council," he said.

There was no early indication as to whether there would be a formal U.S. response to the Ahmadinejad letter. Though the two countries have not had formal relations in more than a quarter-century, they do exchange messages through intermediaries and their diplomats have occasional contact.

The United States earlier this year proposed talks on matters of mutual concern about Iraq through the U.S. envoy to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad, though Iran recently said such talks were unnecessary because of the seating of a new Iraqi government.

Officials say Secretary Rice's late evening dinner meeting with her Security Council colleagues would be a private strategy session.

Russia and China have resisted the draft resolution circulated by Britain and France aimed at dealing with concerns Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program.

Its call for Iran to halt uranium enrichment and return to negotiations would be binding under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter but it does not seek immediate sanctions against Tehran.

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