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US Congressional Staffers Plan to Visit Iran - 2004-01-30

The Bush administration said Friday it would have no objection to a visit to Iran by a U.S. congressional delegation. The possibility of a trip, which would be the first of its kind since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, was reportedly raised during a visit to Washington this week by Iran's U.N. ambassador.

The State Department approved the Washington visit by the Iranian U.N. diplomat, Mohammed Javad Zarif, who needs specific U.S. permission to travel outside the New York City area. And spokesman Richard Boucher says it would support a congressional visit to Iran, which the newspaper USA Today says was discussed at a private dinner Mr. Zarif had with a bipartisan group of legislators at the U.S. Capitol building late Wednesday.

"We've always encouraged exchanges, people to people exchanges, with Iranians, with Iran," said Mr. Boucher. "We've certainly encouraged congressional travel in general. So I guess it sounds like it would be fine with us if that's what they decided to do."

No date for a congressional mission has been set. But one of the participants in the dinner meeting with Mr. Zarif, Republican Senator Arlen Specter, says a team of congressional aides will make a preliminary visit to Iran next month.

A senior diplomat here said administration concerns about Iran's nuclear program, support for terrorism, and backing for groups violently opposed to the Middle East peace process, are shared by members of Congress.

He said it could be useful for Iranian officials to hear those views directly from U.S. lawmakers, who could also be expected to reaffirm U.S. calls for greater democratization there.

Mr. Zarif's visit to Washington was the first since he took up the U.N. post in 2002, and the discussion of a congressional visit was the latest in a series of recent signs of thaw in the chilly U.S.-Iranian relationship.

After the devastating earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam in late December, Iran accepted a U.S. aid offer and allowed a direct airlift of American supplies and relief workers.

The Bush administration eased U.S. economic sanctions against Iran to facilitate the relief operation, and it proposed sending a delegation headed by Senator Elizabeth Dole to underscore U.S. concern, though Iran said the time for such a visit was not right, given the emergency situation.

The two countries have had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 revolution, when Iranian protesters overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held staff members hostage for more than a year.

Though President Bush labeled Iran a part of an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address two years ago, officials of the two countries have had contacts in Geneva on Afghanistan and other issues of mutual concern.