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Iranian: Nuke inspectors can stay longer

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's top diplomat offered yesterday to extend the current visit of UN nuclear inspectors and expressed optimism their findings would help ease tensions despite international claims that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

The comments by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, reported by Iran's official news agency, underscored efforts to display cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency team and downplay the expectations of a confrontation during the three-day visit that began Sunday.

The IAEA mission is the first to Iran since a report in November that suggested some of the Islamic Republic's alleged experiments, cited in intelligence documents, can have no other purpose than developing nuclear weapons. The current inspection team includes two senior weapons experts, hinting that Iran may be prepared to discuss specific points on the claims it seeks to develop warheads after three years of rebuffing UN calls for answers.

Salehi, attending an African summit in Ethiopia, repeated remarks, without offering more details, that he was "optimistic about the results of the visit." He told Turkish state television that the UN mission could be "extended if necessary," according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Asian powers, which buy the bulk of Iran's oil, have resisted appeals to join Western boycotts and financial sanctions aimed at Iran. India's finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, told reporters Sunday in Chicago that cutting off Iranian oil would be too great a blow for the Indian economy. -- AP

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