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Vice-president tells Munich conference that US can talk to Tehran over alleged nuclear programme if Iran gets serious

The United States is prepared to hold direct talks with Iran amid the standoff over its nuclear ambitions, the US vice-president, Joe Biden, has said.

Speaking at the Munich security conference on Saturday, Biden said: “There is still time, there is still space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed.”

He insisted that “the ball is in the government of Iran’s court” to show that it is negotiating in good faith.

Asked when Washington would hold direct talks with Tehran, Biden replied: “When the Iranian leadership, the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], is serious.”

Last month, Iran announced plans to dramatically increase its pace of uranium enrichment, which can be used to make both reactor fuel and the fissile core of warheads.

Iran insists it does not want nuclear arms and argues it has a right to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear power programme, but suspicions persist that the real aim is to develop nuclear weapons. The country’s nuclear programme remained secret until it was exposed more than a decade ago.

Iran also unveiled its latest combat jet on Saturday, a domestically manufactured fighter-bomber that military officials claim can evade radar. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a ceremony broadcast on state TV that building the Qaher-313, or Dominant-313, highlights Iran’s will to “conquer scientific peaks”.

The Qaher is one of several aircraft designs produced by the Iranian military since 2007. The Islamic republic launched a self-sufficiency military programme in the 1980s to compensate for a western weapons embargo that banned the export of military technology and equipment to Iran. Since 1992, Iran has produced its own tanks, armoured personnel carriers, missiles, torpedoes, drones and fighter planes.

Russia and the US have moved closer to agreeing a strategy over Iran’s nuclear programme, butthe two countries remain dividied as to how to tackle the crisis in Syria.

Biden told the conference: “President Assad, a tyrant hellbent on clinging to power, is no longer fit to lead the Syrian people and he must go.”

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, branded Biden’s statement as counterproductive. “The persistence of those who say that priority number one is the removal of President Assad, I think it’s the single biggest reason for the continued tragedy in Syria.”

Republican Darrell Issa and Democrat Elijah Cummings ask whether level of Swartz’s prosecution was ‘appropriate’

Members of Congress investigating the prosecution of Aaron Swartz have asked the US attorney general if the free information activist’s political advocacy was a factor in the decision to pursue him.

A letter from the House Oversight Committee to Eric Holder indicates that it is taking a close look at whether the level of criminal charges and punishment sought by prosecutors were appropriate, as well as whether political factors played a part.

Swartz took his own life this month after battling federal hacking charges, which have been severely criticised as over-reaching and unnecessary by lawyers and cyber-crime experts.

A joint letter from Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the committee and Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat, asked for a briefing to be scheduled with Department of Justice staff within a week.

Issa tweeted on Monday that he had requested a “timely briefing” on the case, with a link to the letter, first reported by the Huffington Post.

Swartz, an internet pioneer who helped create Reddit, faced up to 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines, after being charged with 13 felonies for allegedly breaking into Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer system to access a huge volume of academic articles from the JSTOR digital library with the intention of making them freely available. He had legal access to the articles in the library, but was accused of violating the terms of service by downloading too many, too fast. JSTOR did not pursue a prosecution after Swartz turned over his files to the Department of Justice.

His family have accused prosecutors and MIT of contributing to his death on 11 January.

The letter from Issa and Cummings, dated 28 January, asks what factors influenced the decision to prosecute Swartz, and what lay behind key decisions in the case, such as the multiple charges against him and specific plea bargains offered to him.

In particular, it asks: “Was Mr Swartz’s opposition to Sopa or his association with any advocacy groups considered?”

Swartz, an advocate for open access online, founded Demand Progress, to rally the online community against two internet censorship bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) and the Protect IP Act (Pipa).

Lawyers for Swartz have reportedly said that they had been unsuccessful in trying to get a plea bargain which did not involve jail time. He was offered a plea bargain of six to eight months prison time if he plead guilty to all 13 counts.

Issa has been an avid campaigner for internet freedom and has spoken out against Sopa. Cummings told the Huffington Post that the Department of Justice had already agreed to brief them.

“I expect that we’ll be meeting with them next week,” he said. “We expect to have a candid and open discussion with the US attorney’s office and then we’ll take it from there, but I promise you we will not leave one stone unturned.”

He told the news site: “There’s more than one issue here – is the law too vague? Why was he charged the way he was when the University decided it was not going to prosecute?”

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, has put forward an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which has been called “Aaron’s law” http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/jan/16/zoe-lofgren-proposes-aarons-law?intcmp=239.

Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor, put out a statement after Swartz’s death, defending the charges against him and said they were “appropriate”.

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