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Americans celebrate the birthday of their country on July 4th with fireworks and parades, as well as picnics and barbecues for friends and family. This year, U.S. embassies around the world have the opportunity of inviting new guests to their celebrations: Iranian diplomats.

Breaking with previous policy, the U.S. State Department has authorized embassies to ask officials from the government of Iran to attend embassy Fourth of July festivities. The U.S. severed formal diplomatic relations with Iran after Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, and held U.S. personnel hostage for over four hundred days.

The overture comes as the U.S. is seeking to engage the government of Iran directly on a variety of issues, including its nuclear program. U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said inviting the Iranian diplomats to Independence Day celebrations is part of the U.S. effort to have direct contact with Iran:

"Our policy is to try to reach out to the Iranian Government and people. The President [Barack Obama] and the Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] have made very clear that this is what we want to do. And you know, certainly, there are going to be other opportunities to reach out to Iran. We again still wait for Iran to reach back."

Mr. Wood said the U.S. is particularly interested in hearing a positive response to the offer made to Iran for the U.S. to participate fully in the P5 plus one talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The P5 plus one refers to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia, and the U.S. -- plus Germany.

The Independence Day invitation to Iranian diplomats, said Mr. Wood, is another sign that the United States is moving in a new direction in regard to Iran. "We want to engage the Iranian people, and through them, their government," he said, "and this is just one way of doing so."

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