Iranian legislators to form Iranian-U.S. friendship committee

Iranian deputies were gathering signatures to form U.S.-Iranian friendship committee in parliament to hold contacts with American Congress.

It was the first effort organized by parliament to find a way to bridge nearly three decades of estrangement between the U.S. and Iran. It comes days after the governments of the two countries agreed to hold direct talks on one of the main issues dividing them - the conflict in Iraq.

Darioush Ghanbari, one of at least 10 deputies who has signed the document calling for the establishment of the committee, said Iranian parliamentarians were seeking to reduce tensions with America and "explain Iran's realities to the U.S. Congress."

The document had signatures from both conservatives and reformists and more signatures from the 290-member legislature were expected by the end of the day, Ghanbari said.

"In the absence of formal diplomatic relations, we seek to establish a parliamentary relationship with the U.S. Congress and fill the existing gap of contacts between the two nations," Ghanbari, a pro-reform lawmaker, told The Associated Press.

No specific number of deputies is required to form such a committee. The document signed by lawmakers will be presented to the parliament's speaker, who has the right to accept or reject it.

It was unclear what he would do. The speaker is Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a close associate of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds final say in all matters in Iran. Haddad Adel is considered a relative moderate among the conservatives and hard-liners who make up Iran's top leadership, and it is likely he would consult with Khamenei before taking any decision.

Washington severed diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranian militant students stormed its embassy in Tehran in 1979, to protest America's refusal to hand over Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for trial.

Ever since, talk of ties with the United States has long been a taboo among Iran's hard-line clerical leadership. Hard-liners stymied cautious efforts by reformists in the late 1990s to open up contacts with Americans - though the leadership has condoned occasional talks on specific issues with Washington.

One hard-line lawmaker, Saeed Aboutaleb, denounced the effort to create the friendship committee, saying Tuesday, "the nation will strike the mouth of these lawmakers."

Khamenei's stance on the committee was not known. But Iran's acceptance of ambassador-level talks with the U.S. on improving Iraq's security could be a sign the supreme leader sees the need for contact with the United States amid the two countries' escalating tensions.

The United States accuses Iran of fueling Iraq's violence by backing militants there, a charge Iran denies. Tehran, in turn, says the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is the cause of the country's turmoil. Washington and its allies also accuse Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons - a charge Iran also denies - and the United Nations has imposed limited sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment.

The Iraqi government - which is backed by the United States but also close to Iran - has pushed for the two countries to end their disputes.

Proponents of the friendship committee said it could help avert anti-Iranian legislatation by the U.S. Congress.

"If (Iranian) government officials are reconciling with Americans, why can't the Iranian nation reconcile with the American people?" said Jalal Hosseini, another Iranian reformist lawmaker who signed the petitition.

"We are seeking to form this friendship comittee to undermine anti-Iran policies of the Bush administration and show our good will and our peace-loving spirits," he said.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova