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Librarian of Congress visits Iran

TEHRAN, Iran -- Despite recent tensions over Iran's nuclear program, the United States and Iran quietly initiated a high-level cultural exchange this week with a visit to Tehran by the librarian of Congress, James Billington.

Billington said yesterday in an interview that talks between the longstanding foes were still at a ''very preliminary stage about developing broad-ranging discussions." But he described his six-day tour of Tehran, the capital, and Isfahan, the country's second-largest city, as one of the most rewarding of his many trips abroad during 17 years at the Library of Congress.

''It's been a very interesting time and a fascinating trip," Billington said. ''I've been treated extremely well."

Billington said he expected the chief of the Iranian National Library, Mohammed Bojnourdi, to visit Washington ''as part of a normal exchange." A date for that trip had not been set.

Billington, a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate, is the highest-level US official to visit Iran and openly meet with Iranian officials since relations between the two countries were severed in 1980 after militant students took over the US Embassy in the wake of the Islamic revolution. Billington's visit was approved by the White House, and he was briefed by the State Department before he left, US officials said.

Billington said the goal of his trip was to discuss acquiring Iranian publications.

''We have a large collection on the Middle East and Islamic world, and we want to expand our collection," he said.

Billington said he also met with top officials at Tehran's parliamentary library, toured the national archives, and discussed with specialists topics including Iranian films and Sanskrit and Russian architectural influences in Iran.

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