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Iran's former parliament speaker on Saturday urged direct talks with the United States to break down the "walls of mistrust," but said Teheran would not give up the right to produce nuclear fuel and pursue other technological advances.
"This silence between the two countries cannot go on forever," Mehdi Karroubi told The Associated Press. "The ice should be broken and the walls of mistrust should fall."
To that end, he said he "supported direct talks but on equal terms" in which the United States did not enter negotiations as a "bully."
Karroubi, once a leading figure among conservatives, began a reformist movement before last year's presidential elections and accused Iran's leadership of manipulating the vote to favor the surprise winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Karroubi, a parliament speaker from 2000 to 2004, finished third.
Karroubi's official power has faded, but he maintains considerable influence through his pipeline to the nation's ruling clerics and his own authority as a hojjatoleslam, or a mid-ranking cleric.
Although Karroubi strongly endorsed direct and wide-ranging contacts with Washington, he held firm to one key position of the hard-line government: Iran cannot give up the right to enrich uranium and have full control over its nuclear program.
"Technology and knowledge are our national right," he said. "This is not negotiable ... but we should move forward on many diplomatic levels."
The United States and several allies claim Iran's nuclear ambitions include developing atomic weapons. Iran insists it only wants reactors for peaceful energy purposes.
The standoff, however, has provided unprecedented momentum toward possible one-on-one contact between Teheran and Washington, which broke relations with Iran shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran had tentatively approved dialogue with the United States on neighboring Iraq but pulled out after claiming Washington planned to use it as "propaganda" and leverage in the nuclear impasse.
Karroubi, however, said Iran could play an important role in Iraq because of its religious ties to the majority Shiite Muslims and ethnic connections between Iranian and Iraqi Kurds. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran could have a "positive role" in Iraq if it can work with the new US-backed government in Baghdad.
"There is an unbreakable connection between the Iraqis and (Iran) and so it is natural that Iran has some influence," Karroubi said. "Iran can play a role to consolidate the parties and bring solidarity between the different factions."
Karroubi declined to say whether he had knowledge of back channel contacts with Washington during his 2002-4 term as parliament speaker, but he noted he "did something important" by holding impromptu discussions with several U.S. senators during a global conference of lawmakers in New York in 2000.
"I've always said that strong diplomacy, trust building and transparent dealings is the foundation for building a relationship," he said. "But we have to approach this from both sides. You just can't expect (Iran) to make concessions.
"It has to come from both sides."
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