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Chief of US Library of Congress Visits Iran in Rare Exchange

The Bush administration said Wednesday it approved this week's visit to Iran by the head of the U.S. Library of Congress, James Billington. But the State Department is downplaying the political significance of the trip.

Mr. Billington and his small delegation from the Library of Congress flew to Iran this week with little public fanfare.

And while the visit was approved by the White House, officials here are minimizing the political importance of the trip, which comes amid high tensions between the United States and the Tehran government over Iran's nuclear program and support for Middle East extremists.

The Library of Congress is the national library of the United States and the research arm of Congress, and Mr. Billington is a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate.

Despite the absence of diplomatic relations, the United States and Iran have had occasional political contact and cultural exchanges, and Iran accepted an airlift of U.S. aid after the devastating earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam last December.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he would not "attach any special importance" to Mr. Billington's visit.

Mr. Boucher said any discussions he might have in Tehran would be unlikely to deal with issues of U.S. concern including the nuclear question and Iran's support for terrorism and what he termed "violent" opposition to Middle East peace efforts. However, he also made clear such contact can still have some value.

"I don't think any of us think that visits by the Librarian of Congress or some of these other groups that have gone is going to change that behavior overnight, or it is really going to deal with those serious issues that really need to be dealt with," he said. "On the other hand, allowing certain exchanges doesn't seem to me to be totally inconsistent with the prospect that some day Iran might change those areas of behavior that are so important to us."

The United States accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of its civilian atomic energy program. Washington is pressing to have the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions when it meets later this month in Vienna.

The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran after militant students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November, 1979 and took more than 50 American diplomats and other officials hostage.

Reports from Tehran said thousands of Iranian demonstrators marked the 25th anniversary of the takeover Wednesday at the site of the former embassy, burning an American flag and shouting anti-U.S. slogans.

Spokesman Boucher said the fact that Mr. Billington's visit coincided with the anniversary was purely coincidental.