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U.S. delays Iran policy meeting

From Andrea Koppel and Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House has postponed indefinitely a high level policy meeting on Iran scheduled this week, State Department officials told CNN Thursday.

The officials cited several wide-ranging reasons, including President Bush's focus on the Middle East peace process and the need to further investigate questions about whether Iran is harboring al Qaeda operatives.

Late last week, administration officials indicated there would be a deputies-level, or perhaps even a principles-level, national security meeting at the White House early this week to flesh out future U.S. policy on Iran.

"No decisions have been made [on Iran policy]," one State Department official said. "The ball is in Iran's court."

This official also said there was no expectation of a sudden shift in U.S. policy on Iran.

"We're not standing on the verge of a precipice," the official said.

Earlier this week, the White House said Iran had taken "insufficient" steps to round up al Qaeda terrorists within its borders.

"Iran is not exactly the type of nation that people just happen to end up in," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Tuesday. "People seem to have a desire to go there, and our concern is that the desire can be matched by a government that allows them to be there."

The next day, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami denied U.S. charges and urged delegates of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to shun terrorism as well as superpower domination.

"Our world has suffered from both violent dogmatists and arrogant powers," he said in opening remarks to the conference.

"On the one side, terrorism and fanaticism have distorted religion and, on the other side, the resort to the use of force, domination and unilateralism have made a mockery of concepts such as freedom and democracy."

State Department officials said postponing the meeting would also provide time to "tone down" the rhetoric of recent days and give Iran time to signal a willingness to cooperate.

There was also a desire to talk with officials in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Britain about their private conversations with Iranian officials.

And, the CIA wants more time for analysts to look over intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.

The debate over policy in Iran, much as the debate over Iraq and North Korea, is breaking down over familiar lines.

Neoconservatives in the Pentagon and the White House are pushing for regime change, and other officials in the State Department are saying the jury is still out on the best course of action.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday that U.S. policies remain the same.

"The policy toward Iran has not changed. We have serious concerns with Iran in a number of areas," Boucher said. "We're prepared to address those concerns in different channels at different times but the policy toward Iran has not changed."

Officials said Secretary of State Colin Powell believes that if Iran has in fact "abandoned support for the campaign against terrorism," then "maybe there is a justification" for toughening U.S. policy.

These officials said one plan under consideration by neoconservatives would involve removing the Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahedeen also known as the Mujahedeen e-Kalq, or MEK, from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The next step would be "reinventing" the group as a legitimate opposition force to work toward regime change in Iran, along lines similar to the Iraqi National Congress, the officials said.

In recent weeks the U.S. military said it had struck a cease-fire agreement with the MEK and had disarmed its fighters in Iraq.

Among the U.S. concerns about Iran are:

• Alleged attempts to foment opposition among Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims to U.S. occupation forces in southern Iraq.

• Alleged harboring of al Qaeda operatives, some of whom might have been responsible for the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, suicide bombings.

• An alleged active nuclear weapons program.

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