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Ambassador to Iraq to head Tehran team for direct U.S.-Iran talks

Iranian ambassador to Iraq will head the Tehran’s delegation for the talks between the U.S. and Iran in Baghdad next week, a foreign ministry spokesman announced Friday.

Mohammad-Ali Hosseini, the spokesman, told the state IRNA news agency that Ambassador Hassan Kazemi was appointed to lead the Iranian delegation in the negotiations. "The Iran-US talks on Iraq will start on Monday, May 28," Hosseini said.

Although Kazemi had been cast as the likely chief Iranian in the talks, Hosseini's announcement was the first official statement on this.

The talks in Baghdad between U.S. and Iranian diplomats on efforts to stabilize Iraq will offer a very rare one-on-one forum between the two countries, which broke off formal relations after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The agenda is expected to be limited to Iraqi affairs, without spilling over into the nuclear impasse between Iran and the West. However, that standoff is likely to hang over any interplay between Iran and the United States.

On Thursday, Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed never to halt the country's controversial uranium enrichment program. His salvo followed a report Wednesday by the U.N. nuclear watchdog that said Iran has expanded its enrichment in defiance of U.N. demands for a suspension. The finding could set the stage for a third round of Security Council sanctions.

U.S. President George W. Bush said Thursday he would work with allies to strengthen sanctions on Iran and criticized Iran's leaders who "continue to be defiant as to the demands of the free world."

U.S.-Iranian tensions have increased, despite the groundbreaking diplomatic overture. The Pentagon has moved two aircraft carriers and seven other ships into the Persian Gulf in a show of force. Iran, meanwhile, has detained at least two prominent American-Iranian citizens.