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US Welcomes Iranian Gesture on Detained Americans

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The State Department Tuesday welcomed an Iranian decision granting consular access to three Americans detained since late July for allegedly entering Iran illegally. The move comes in advance of a critical meeting Thursday between Iran and major world powers on its nuclear program.

Officials here are welcoming the Iranian decision on the three detained Americans but say it is hard to tell if the gesture bodes well for the long-awaited nuclear meeting Thursday in Geneva.

Iran said it was giving the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represents U.S. interests there, consular access to the three Americans - two men and a woman - held by Iran since late July when they apparently strayed into Iran while on a hike in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an interview last week during his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, had said he would ask the Iranian judiciary to treat the case of these American hikers with maximum leniency.

The United States has been pressing for consular access to the detainees and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley said the United States is grateful that Iran has decided, albeit belatedly, to do so. He said it is not clear if the gesture is a good sign in advance of Thursday's nuclear meeting.

"Hard to say. Clearly we welcome the fact that Iran is meeting up to its obligations under the Vienna convention, and clearly on Thursday we will have a similar message that Iran has to live up to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but beyond that, I can't say," he said.

Representative of Iran and the P5+1 - the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany - will sit down together for the first time in more than a year to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

Suspicions by the United States and key allies that Iran's nominally peaceful nuclear program is weapons-related have been heightened by the revelation late last week that Iran has been building an underground uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom.

Crowley said the Geneva meeting will be an opportunity for Iran to resolve those concerns with constructive, affirmative and positive steps, including by opening its entire nuclear program to meaningful inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"This should be feasible. But as we talked about yesterday, if Iran's program is peaceful, then why has it gone to great lengths in this recent reactor disclosed in Qom and in other places, why have they gone to great lengths to hide what they're doing. If you have a peaceful program, there should be nothing to hide," he added.

Crowley said he expects the Geneva meeting to be a one-day affair, after which the six powers will evaluate Iran's willingness to engage on the nuclear issue.

The P5+1 members have offered to suspend imposition of punitive measures against Iran if it stops adding to its uranium enrichment efforts and returns to negotiations over its nuclear program.

A senior official who spoke to reporters here said if Iran, in Geneva, merely repeats public statements that it considers the nuclear file closed, there will be, as he put it, implications from that.

European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana will lead the P5+1 delegation though Crowley said U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns intends to be a full participant. Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili is expected to represent Tehran.