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U.S. Academics Tour Iran

By CBS News field producer Leily Lankarani and CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer in London

The presidents of six leading U.S. universities are touring Iran, the latest in a series of exchange visits involving senior academics and scientists. The American academics include the presidents of Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and Rice Universities.

"We believe it is important to maintain and renew academic ties between our two countries as a means of laying the groundwork for greater understanding and rebuilding what was once a very healthy collaboration in science and higher education," said Robert Berdahl, the president of the Association of American Universities which organized the tour.

"I think Iranian universities are interested in increased cooperation with U.S. institutions," said David Leebron of Rice University. "Although we shouldn't underestimate the contact that already exists. Don't forget a lot of Iranian academics - especially senior ones - received some of their education in the U.S."

Officially, the academics are guests of Iran's most prestigious science and technology college, Sharif University, where they will take part in an open question and answer session with Iranian students.

Unofficially, though, they are part of Iran's complex and shifting political agenda.

Their visit comes at a time of renewed hope for increased cooperation between Iran and the United States, which has not had an embassy in Tehran since the seizing of 52 hostages in 1979.

President-elect Barack Obama has advocated "direct, tough presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions."

But his apparent willingness to engage has been met with mixed signals by Iranian officials.

On the anniversary of the taking of the hostages, Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the U.S. had not apologized for numerous conspiracies against Iran over the past 50 years.

"They have continued their arrogant actions," he added.

Also, earlier this month, Iran test-fired a missile with a range long enough to reach Israel and U.S. forces stationed in the Middle East.

On the other hand, the head of Iran's judiciary has praised the new security agreement that allows U.S. troops to stay in Iraq until 2011.

But Dr. Saadeq Zibakalam, a political scientist from Tehran University, cautioned against reading too much into the American visit.

"If they were political scholars who might engage in discussions of policy, that could make this visit significant, and signal a thaw in diplomatic relations," Zibakalam said. "But they are largely scientists. That's more neutral ground."

"In fact, even if Barack Obama offers an olive branch to the Iranians when he gets to the White House, I don't think they will reciprocate. Basically the Iranian regime thinks the U.S. is encroaching in the Middle East and is not brokering a real solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not the right time for them to seek détente."