Hardline newspaper report sends Iran foreign minister to hospital

Reuters

* Iran's foreign minister blames headline for back pain

* Zarif to lead nuclear talks with world powers next week

* Incident points to domestic debate over ties with West

By Yeganeh Torbati and Jon Hemming

DUBAI, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Iran's foreign minister and chiefnuclear negotiator went to hospital with pains he said werebrought on by a hardline newspaper quoting him as sayingPresident Hassan Rouhani's phone call with President BarackObama was a mistake.

Mohammad Javad Zarif's brief visit to hospital is a pointerto the strength and possible rancour of the debate within Iranover the speed and extent to which the Islamic Republic shouldattempt to patch up its many quarrels with the West and theUnited States in particular.

Zarif is to lead his country's negotiating team in talkswith six major world powers in Geneva next week, the first roundof negotiations since Rouhani's election in June breathed newhope into decade-old talks on Iran's nuclear programme.

Iranian parliament speaker and former chief nuclearnegotiator Ali Larijani described the talks as a "window ofopportunity", telling reporters in Geneva the two sides shouldfocus on confidence-building.

Rouhani, a relative moderate, and the U.S.-educated Zarifled a diplomatic drive to dispel distrust of Iran's intentionsat the United Nations in New York last month. The tripculminated in the first phone call between the presidents ofIran and the United States since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, often viewed as ahardliner, backed Rouhani's diplomatic overtures, but said somewere "not proper", a possible reference to the call - giving thepresident's critics a chance to snipe at his initiative.

The hardline newspaper Kayhan said on Tuesday that Zarif hadtold a closed-door session of parliament's national security andforeign policy committee that Rouhani's conversation with Obamahad been a mistake, as had the length of Zarif's own privatemeeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

An infuriated Zarif denied saying any such thing, and saidthe newspaper report had affected him physically.

"SEVERE PAIN"

"This morning, after seeing the headline of one newspaper, Igot severe back and leg pain. I couldn't even walk or sit," hewrote on his Facebook page late on Tuesday.

Cancelling several engagements, Zarif decided to rest at theministry and held meetings with deputies "while resting".

"When four to five hours of rest did not solve the problem,at 5 p.m. I left my office ... and went to the hospital. ThankGod, the MRI showed my problem was more due to nerves and amuscle spasm and will be solved through exercise," he wroteafter returning from hospital some four hours later.

"In any case, it was a bitter but very informative day forme. I learned that whatever I want to say, to say it publicly,because otherwise the market for abuse is very active."

Without naming Kayhan, whose editor is appointed by Khameneiand is usually considered to reflect his views, Zarif said itwas unfortunate that a confidential meeting in parliament hadbeen leaked.

"Worse than this is that individuals who see themselves asthe judges of my honesty, and who praise my honesty in a smallheadline, published with the biggest headline possible a quoteattributed to me which does not conform with what I said."

Though Khamenei is the ultimate authority on all matters ofstate, especially the nuclear file, there is often a vigorousdebate between subordinates in the government, parliament andsecurity apparatus that frequently spills into public before thesupreme leader gives his final word.

Western powers say Iran's uranium enrichment programme isaimed at achieving a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran deniesthe charge and says it only wants the technology for generatingelectricity and for medical research.

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