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US prepared to hold talks with Iran without pre-conditions

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo softens previous stance on Iran's nuclear programme

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis. Mr Pompeo said Washington would continue to work to "reverse the malign activity" of Iran in the Middle East.

Bellinzona, Switzerland

THE United States was prepared to engage with Iran without pre-conditions about its nuclear programme but needed to see the country behaving like "a normal nation", US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani suggested on Saturday that Iran may be willing to hold talks if Washington showed it respect, but said Teheran would not be pressured into talks.

In an apparent softening of his previous stance, Mr Pompeo said when asked about Mr Rouhani's remarks: "We are prepared ... to engage in conversations with no pre-conditions, we are ready to sit down." However, he said Washington would continue to work to "reverse the malign activity" of Iran in the Middle East.

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Mr Pompeo said US President Donald Trump had been saying for a long time that he was willing to talk to Iran.

"We are certainly prepared to have that conversation when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation," Mr Pompeo said at a joint news conference with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona.

Mr Trump said last Monday he was hopeful Iran would come to the negotiating table. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday Teheran would not negotiate with Washington, even after Mr Rouhani had previously signalled talks might be possible if sanctions were lifted.

Mr Cassis voiced concern at Iranian people suffering from the impact of sanctions and said that neutral Switzerland wanted to provide humanitarian aid, "especially pharmaceutical products and foodstuffs". He said Iran needed to make payments for this, and that was possible only if the United States allowed banks to transfer payments.

Mr Cassis said he was confident the US would come up with the "best possible solution" to that problem in a short time.

Iran has stayed within the main restrictions of its 2015 nuclear deal, a quarterly report by the UN atomic watchdog indicated on Friday, at a time when Teheran is threatening to break the rules in future in response to new US sanctions.

Mr Pompeo declined on Sunday to comment on the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He said Washington was tracking IAEA findings closely but added: "We also have our own independent understanding of what is taking place there.

"And the world should be mindful that we are watching closely how Iran is complying with the requirements that were set out in the JCPOA, not only the heavy water issue, but the amount of high-enriched uranium which they are accumulating," he said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which the Trump administration has quit.

"We are watching closely as they put centrifuges into work and whether they are actually beginning to spin those centrifuges and load those centrifuges."

Switzerland has served as an intermediary between Iran and the United States since shortly after the Islamic revolution in November 1979. Switzerland provides protective and consular services for some 100 US citizens and 12,000 people with both US and Iranian citizenship.

Iran and the US have been drawn into starker confrontation in the past month, a year after Washington pulled out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Teheran's nuclear programme in return for lifting international sanctions.

Washington re-imposed sanctions last year and ratcheted them up in May, ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil. In recent weeks it has also hinted at military confrontation, saying it was sending extra forces to the Middle East to respond to an Iranian threat. REUTERS