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US Iran To Have Direct Group Talks Over Nuke Program

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Wednesday it will participate directly in group talks with Iran over its suspect nuclear program, another significant shift from President George W. Bush's policy toward a nation he labeled part of an axis of evil.

The State Department said the United States would be at the table "from now on" when senior diplomats from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany meet with Iranian officials to discuss the nuclear issue. The Bush administration had generally shunned such meetings, although it attended one last year.

"We believe that pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters. "There is nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon."

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the decision was conveyed to representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia by the third-ranking U.S. diplomat, William Burns, at a Wednesday meeting in London. That group announced earlier that it would invite Iran to attend a new session aimed at breaking a deadlock in the talks.

"If Iran accepts, we hope this will be the occasion to seriously engage Iran on how to break the logjam of recent years and work in a cooperative manner to resolve the outstanding international concerns about its nuclear program," Wood said.

Wood said the administration wants a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue and believes that requires "a willingness to engage directly with each other." He added that "we hope that the government of Iran chooses to reciprocate."

The invitation is to be sent to the Iranians by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. No time frame was given for a date of the meeting.

Prior to word from State, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's hard-line president, said that his country "welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect." The remark, made in a speech broadcast live on state television, was one of the strongest signals yet that Tehran might respond positively to President Barack Obama's calls for dialogue.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In 2002, Bush cited Iran along with North Korea and Iraq when he described an "axis of evil" constituted by governments that he said supported terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction.

Official exchanges between the U.S. and Iran have largely been limited to talks over security in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The difficulty in easing tensions between Tehran and Washington were made apparent when Iranian authorities said Wednesday that a detained American journalist in Iran has been charged with espionage.

The administration has been pressing for Roxana Saberi's release since she was detained more than two months ago. Clinton said U.S. officials were "deeply concerned" by word that she will face trial next week. "We wish for her speedy release and return to her family," Clinton said.

The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon, a claim that Iran denies. Tehran insists it has the right to develop reactor fuel using enrichment for civilian energy purposes.

Throughout the London negotiations, the allied group has offered Iran a package of incentives to stop enriching and reprocessing uranium. Tehran has thus far rebuffed the offer in the face of three rounds of economic, trade and financial sanctions by the U.N. Security Council.

Individual countries, led by the United States and members of the European Union, have also imposed their own sanctions on Iran.

Obama has acted on his campaign statements that he would open direct talks with Iran. Obama's aides invited Tehran to an international meeting on Afghanistan late last month _ where U.S. officials delivered a written message to Iranian diplomats politely asking for information about detained and missing Americans in the country, including Saberi.

Also last month, Obama recorded a video address to the Iranian people, saying the U.S. is prepared to end years of strained relations if Tehran tones down its bellicose rhetoric.