Iranian lawmakers seek to form 'friendship committee' with US Congress

So far, proponents gathered signatures from 20 lawmakers - including reformists and conservatives.

A group of Iranian lawmakers tried Tuesday to create a "friendship committee" that would open contacts with the US Congress - an unprecedented attempt to build ties at a time when Iran's hard-line leadership also has shown willingness to talk with the country's No. 1 enemy. Such a committee would break a longtime taboo on contacts with the US, enforced by Iran's powerful hard-liners since Washington broke ties with Tehran following the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy. Proponents were hoping the move would be condoned by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all matters in the country. Iran and the United States agreed over the weekend to hold ambassador-level talks in Baghdad over security in Iraq - a limited step amid calls for the two nations to open a dialogue to resolve their escalating tensions. The creation of a friendship committee would open an unique channel of communication between politicians in the two countries, which presumably could deal with any topic. "If (Iranian) government officials can reconcile with Americans, why can't the Iranian nation reconcile with the American people?" said Jalal Hosseini, a pro-reform lawmaker who signed a petition calling for the committee's creation. So far, proponents gathered signatures from 20 lawmakers - including reformists and conservatives - supporting the committee, and they planned to seek more before submitting it to the parliament speaker, probably on Sunday. No specific number of deputies is required to form such a committee. Instead, it is up to the speaker, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, to accept or reject the idea. Haddad Adel, a close associate of supreme leader Khamenei, is considered a relative moderate among the conservatives and hard-liners who make up Iran's top leadership. It is likely he would consult with Khamenei before taking any decision. One hard-line lawmaker, Saeed Aboutaleb, denounced the committee idea, saying Tuesday, "the nation will strike the mouth of these lawmakers" who support it. But another hard-liner in parliament, Morteza Tamaddon, supported the petition, saying the move should not be considered as a sell-out of Islamic values. "Dialogue is not necessarily conducted by governments. Parliamentary friendship committees is one way of doing that," he said. Iran's cleric-run government has long opposed seeking ties with the United States, branding it the country's top enemy and the "global arrogance" and "great Satan." Hard-liners crushed cautious efforts by reformists in the late 1990s to open up contacts with Americans. Amid recent mounting tensions, Iranian leaders have repeatedly warned that the US is seeking to topple the government or even launch military action against Iran. Security forces have cracked down on some pro-democracy activists, accusing them of working for the United States. The United States accuses Iran of fueling Iraq's violence by backing militants and says Tehran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies both charges and insists the US troop presence in Iraq is the cause of the country's turmoil. Iran's acceptance of the Baghdad talks with the U.S. could be a sign the supreme leader sees the need for contact with the United States. Seen as a hard-liner but with a pragmatic streak, Khamenei has condoned other, occasional contacts with the Washington in the past, including talks ahead of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Khamenei's stance on the committee was not known. In contrast to the government meetings with the U.S. in the past, contacts by lawmakers could be harder for the leadership to control. Proponents of the committee said it would help avert anti-Iranian legislation from American lawmakers. "We also seek to moderate Iran-bashing laws at the US Congress through direct contacts with them and invite US congressmen to get first hand, correct information about realities in Iran," said reformist lawmaker Darioush Ghanbari. The committee could "fill the existing gap of contacts between the two nations," he said.