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Schroeder Iran trip may improve climate for talks

BERLIN, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is under fire for meeting Iran’s president but his visit to Tehran may help Western nations in their efforts to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear programme.

During his four-day visit last week, Schroeder met Iranian businessmen and held talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose past remarks that the Holocaust was a “myth” and Israel a “tumour” were widely condemned.

German politicians said that talking with Ahmadinejad could strengthen him in the runup to a presidential election in June, and the Central Council of Jews in Germany said Schroeder’s trip had damaged Germany’s reputation.

“You have to ask the question whether it’s wise to provide favourable pictures for Ahmadinejad ahead of June 12,” said Gert Weisskirchen, a Social Democrat (SPD) foreign policy expert.

But analysts said Schroeder’s trip reinforced the West’s new approach to Tehran and could help U.S. President Barack Obama in his push to persuade Iran to hold direct negotiations on its nuclear programme, an option the Bush administration ruled out.

“Schroeder’s visit falls within the strategy that Obama has proclaimed versus Iran: ‘We’re ready to hold serious talks with you. You have to decide’,” political scientist Johannes Reissner said.

“I would judge this trip positively if it was one of many steps by the West. It’s good to move towards action. Obama has already moved things forward as far as atmosphere is concerned.”

Western powers suspect Tehran wants to use its nuclear programme to make a nuclear bomb. Iran says it needs the technology for electricity generation.

Although Schroeder said his trip was private, analysts said it was clear that Tehran saw the statesman who led Europe’s largest economy from 1998 to 2005 as a political visitor.

A German government spokesman said Schroeder had not coordinated the contents of his talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, but added: “The government and the chancellor assume Schroeder led his talks on... the basis of the German position.”

Schroeder’s office had no comment on his talks in Iran.

INTEGRATION VS ISOLATION

Schroeder, who largely left the political stage after losing power, has made clear he favours cooperation with Tehran.

“Integrating such an important country as Iran into the world economy seems more promising to me than isolation,” Schroeder told Germany’s ARD television in Tehran.

The informality of Schroeder’s visit could have helped him boost the Western powers’ case, said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“Elder statesmen are valued in the region... It’s important that someone without a mandate says: ‘This is a good time for you to move towards the Americans’... Particularly because Schroeder doesn’t speak for any government, the Iranians are very interested (in his comments).”

Some commentators in Germany worried that Schroeder had been driven mainly by business interests -- criticism he also faced when, shortly after leaving office, he accepted a job as chairman of the board of Nord Stream, the pipeline project controlled by Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom.

Although the United Nations has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran, German is one of the biggest exporters to that country, with exports rising to 3.92 billion euros last year from 3.6 billion euros in 2007, data showed on Tuesday. [LO425112] (Editing by Tim Pearce)

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