TEHRAN -- A senior Iranian official said yesterday that Iran would enter into direct talks with the United States about Iraq, opening the way for the two countries to hold their first face-to-face discussion about Iran's western neighbor since shortly after the US-led invasion in 2003.
''In the days to come we are going to designate people who are going to carry out these talks," Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in an interview. ''The important thing for us is an established government in Iraq and that security is restored."
The White House welcomed the Iranian participation, which was backed by the US ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, and urged by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shi'ite Muslim leader in Iraq with close ties to Tehran.
Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, said Khalilzad had been authorized to talk to the Iranians about their interference in Iraq. Hadley added that Iranian activity in Iraq ''is giving comfort and, in some case, equipment to terrorists that are killing Iraqis and killing coalition forces. And that is what we have made very clear is unacceptable."
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, emphasized that the talks would be limited to the situation in Iraq and would not touch on Iran's controversial nuclear program. ''The nuclear issue is being discussed at the United Nations among diplomats of the Security Council," McClellan said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year authorized Khalilzad to hold direct talks with Iran about Iraq, but the Iranians wanted to include other issues in the discussions, a senior State Department official said. The Americans responded that they could not meet until Iran agreed that Iraq would be the sole topic, and the Iranians refused.
Rice, speaking during a trip to Australia, declined to provide a timeline for potential talks but indicated they would involve only Khalilzad. ''This is not a negotiation of some kind,'' she said.
A native of Afghanistan, Khalilzad is fluent in Farsi, the language of Iran, and is well regarded by many Iranian officials.
In the interview, Larijani acknowledged that the US request was ''only on Iraq" but appeared to signal more ambitious hopes for the talks. Couching the overture in the antipathy that has frozen US-Iran relations for more than a quarter-century, Larijani said: ''If the Americans stop troublemaking in the region and if they examine their previous conduct and behavior, a lot of things may happen."
But Larijani, who is regarded as extremely close to the cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also suggested that the countries should work past their mutual mistrust. Washington froze out Iran after student militants overran the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, then held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
''We have got to solve the issues in accordance to today's situation," Larijani said, apparently alluding to the presence of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they deposed governments Iran regarded as enemies. ''The facts on the ground have changed a lot.
''We can create stability and security in the region. But not with the sort of rhetoric and language Mr. Bolton is using. What is needed is sensible people who can think of a long-term plan."
Larijani was referring to John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who said last month Iran faced ''tangible and painful consequences" if it continued with its nuclear activities, which Washington says are aimed at building atomic weapons.
In addition, the Bush administration this month announced a $75 million initiative to advance democracy in Iran by expanding broadcasting into the country, funding nongovernmental organizations, and promoting cultural exchanges.
And the White House yesterday issued a new national security strategy with tough words for Iran and a reaffirmation of Bush's doctrine of preemptive war against hostile states with nuclear weapons. The strategy said the United States faced ''no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."
In a speech yesterday to the US Institute of Peace outlining the new document, Hadley denied that the discussion of preemptive war was meant particularly for Iran. It is ''completely wrong to say that our preservation of the doctrine of preemption is to preserve it with Iran as the principal case," Hadley said.
Hadley said the White House would ''look at any kind of conversation" with Iran beyond the issue of Iraq but was leery of bilateral discussions for fear they would crack the consensus Washington has helped build with Europe against Iran's nuclear program. He said the solidarity of the international community seemed to finally be having an effect on Iran.
A senior aide to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Iranian president supported the talks, telling a Los Angeles Times correspondent there is an urgent need. ''The fact that the Americans have reached the conclusion that they cannot resolve regional issues without Iran is in itself a huge victory for Iran and shows the determining role of Iran in the region," said the aide, Hamid Reza Taraghi.
Karim Sadjadpour, who follows Iran for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, said that ''right now you could argue that US-Iran relations are at almost their worst since the 1980s. I think both sides recognize the fact that it's incredibly important that they talk this time. I think it's very positive. This is one area where there is common ground. It would be a good start to talk about Iraq and then move on to the great issues of contention."
Analysts noted that Washington and Tehran have an obvious common interest in Iraq's long-term stability. Iran, governed by Shi'ite Muslim clerics, has consistently called for democracy that would empower Iraq's own Shi'ite majority, long oppressed by the country's Sunni minority.
At the same time, Iran has reason to worry that the recent rise in sectarian fighting in Iraq could erupt into civil war. Tehran is itself facing growing unrest in border areas where non-Persian minorities overlap into Iraq -- ethnic Kurds in the northwest and Arabs in the southwest.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.