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Clinton holds out hope for useful talks with Iran

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Iran have a chance to "work out a way of talking" that could lead to understandings on a range of issues, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.

In a hopeful assessment of prospects for improved relations with Tehran, Clinton told reporters at the State Department that the U.S. remains opposed to Iran getting nuclear weapons. She added that the Obama administration hopes the two nations can work out "a better understanding of one another."

During an appearance with her Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg, Clinton was asked about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement that Iran would welcome talks with Washington if they are based on mutual respect. Iran and the U.S. have not had diplomatic relations for nearly 30 years.

"There is an opportunity for the Iranian government to demonstrate a willingness to unclench their fist and to begin a serious and responsible discussion about a range of matters," Clinton said.

"We still persist in our view that Iran should not obtain nuclear weapons, that it would be a very unfortunate course for them to pursue, and we hope there will be opportunities in the future for us to develop a better understanding of one another and to work out a way of talking that would produce positive results for the people of Iran."

Clinton said the prospect of Iran obtaining ballistic missiles capable of striking central and western Europe was the driving force behind U.S. efforts in recent years to extend its missile defense system to Europe. She did not say whether the Obama administration would go ahead with plans laid by the Bush administration to install missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

Clinton said that if Iran were to change course on the development of missiles and nuclear weapons, then the U.S. "will reconsider where we stand," on the missile defense issue. "But we are a long, long way from seeing any evidence of a behavior change."

Asked whether the U.S. and global financial crisis would have an impact on the administration's plans to proceed with missile defense in Europe, Clinton said, "Our concerns about missile defense are primarily technical," adding that economic calculations might figure in the administration's thinking, too.

Those remarks were in line with Obama's oft-repeated campaign stance: Missile defense would be worth pursuing as long as the technology is proven and the system can be shown to be cost-effective.

"We expect any system that we deploy to be able to operate effectively to achieve the goals that are set," Clinton said.

The system proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic would be designed to shoot down a small number of long-range ballistic missiles outside the Earth's atmosphere; the silo-based interceptor rocket that would be used in that mission is a newer, two-stage version that has not yet been tested in full.

By raising questions about the technical feasibility of the European system, the Obama administration could be signaling an intention to put it on the back burner or use it as a bargaining chip with Russia.

A dimension of the discussion about missile defense in Europe not mentioned by Clinton is Russia's strong objection to it being placed in the Czech Republic and Poland, in what had been a Soviet sphere of influence.