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Iran to aid U.S. military personnel in trouble

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a signal of growing cooperation with the Bush administration on its campaign against Afghanistan, Iran has sent a message to the United States saying it would rescue U.S. military personnel in trouble in Iranian territory.

The senior official said the United States had passed a message to Iran asking for cooperation with military personnel who found themselves shot down or forced to land in Iranian territory.

"We indicated that if this event ... were to occur, we would be looking for this kind of reaction from them and they indicated yes, that's fine," the official said, but added that such an event would be "unlikely," as the United States does not have permission to use Iranian airspace for its campaign against Afghanistan.

The recent exchange of messages followed a series of back-channel communications between the United States and Iran following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon about how Iran could play a role in the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Senior administration officials have called the exchange encouraging.

Deputy State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Monday the United States has "had limited contact with the Iranian government through established multi-lateral channels of communication."

In addition to the United Nations' 6-plus-2 groups, including the United States, Russia and countries neighboring Afghanistan, the United States has a formal diplomatic channel through the Swiss. Senior administration officials have said the United States has also passed messages through Britain and Canada, senior officials have said.

Reeker said the Bush administration "appreciated some of the relatively positive statements that have come from the Iranian leadership in the wake of September 11," especially ones condemning the terrorist acts against the United States.

"We are determined ... to develop as broad a campaign against international terrorism as possible," Reeker said Monday. "And a positive Iranian role in this effort would obviously contribute to our goal of promoting peace and stability, and increasing our security."

But he added the United States and Iran "continue to have serious and long-standing policy differences with each other."

The United States wants Iran to stop what it calls Tehran's state sponsorship of terrorism, as well as to curtail its attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction and to derail the Middle East peace process.

The State Department last week redesignated Hezbollah -- an extremist Muslim Shiite group which the United States has criticized Iran for supporting -- as a foreign terrorist organization.

"Our policy toward Iran has not changed," Reeker said. "The president has said we will be looking for indications that countries do want to change. But ... we've had long-standing concerns."


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