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US open to Iran nuke talks, but no date set

WASHINGTON -- The New York Times reported on Saturday that the United States and Iran have agreed in principle to hold one-on-one negotiations on Iran's nuclear program but the White House quickly denied that any talks had been set.

The Times, quoting unnamed Obama administration officials, said earlier on Saturday the two sides had agreed to bilateral negotiations after secret exchanges between U.S. and Iranian officials. The newspaper later said the agreement was “in principle.”

The White House quickly denied the report, which came two days before President Barack Obama is due to face Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a debate focused on foreign policy.

“It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

“We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

The P5+1 group is composed of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia — plus Germany.

Iran had insisted the talks with Washington not begin until after the Nov. 6 U.S. election determines whether Obama will serve a second term or whether Romney will succeed him, the Times said.

The New York Times report looked likely to fan campaign debate over foreign policy, where Romney has been hitting Obama with charges that he has been an ineffective leader who has left the country vulnerable.

The Obama administration counters that it has pressed hard on all major security challenges while at the same time winding down unpopular and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But tensions with Iran continue to simmer, leading many analysts to say it is the largest security issue facing the United States and a potential flashpoint for broader conflict in the Middle East.

Two Tracks, Few Results

The United States has been working with the P5+1 to pressure Iran on its nuclear program but with few results. The United States and other Western powers have charged that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.

Israel has said it would use military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power but has in the past had differences with Washington over when Tehran would actually cross the “red line” to nuclear capability.

The Times story quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying the United States had reached the agreement for bilateral talks with senior Iranian officials who report to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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