U.S. Senator John Kerry said on Friday he was willing to go to Tehran to talk to Iranian leaders but would not have time during his current Middle East tour.

"I don’t have time and we were not able to make arrangements in the short timespan we had but I would be willing to go," he told reporters in Cairo, the first stop on his tour.

Asked if he planned to make a trip later, he said: "At the appropriate time, at some point."

Kerry, the Democratic candidate in the U.S. presidential election in 2004, is pressing the U.S. administration to reverse its policy of setting preconditions for dialogue with Syria and Iran.

He will visit Syria during his trip with fellow Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd. Both are members of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kerry said the purpose of the mission to Damascus would be to listen to the Syrians and find out more about the Syrian government’s positions on Lebanon, the Lebanese Shi’ite party Hezbollah and the violence in Iraq.

"I’m going to push them (the Syrians) on a number of different issues. I’m curious about what they might or might not be willing to do as we go forward here," he said.

"Do they have any suggestions how the various equations in the region might be changed?" he added.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview published on Friday that the United States and Europe must talk to Syria and Iran if they want a comprehensive solution to Iraq and other Middle East conflicts.

Assad told Rome’s la Repubblica newspaper Damascus was ready to cooperate with Washington to resolve regional issues and challenged Israel to open up to Syria.

A report released last week in Washington by a special panel recommended the United States engage Syria and Iran to bring about stability in Iraq.

The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush has argued that high-level talks with Syria are pointless because the Syrians do not respond to U.S. policy requests.

But Kerry said: "That’s a mistake… It is nonsensical to set up not talking as some kind of reward/punishment barrier. I think we are shortchanging ourselves in that process."

The senator also found fault with Bush’s campaign to make Middle East countries more democratic, which for a time was at the forefront of U.S. diplomatic rhetoric in the region.

"I don’t think it’s been particularly effective, in fact it has been counterproductive in certain quarters. It’s created turmoil and uncertainty," he said.

"We will always be a nation that advocates democracy…but we need to be smart about the steps we take and the pace at which we demand people make transitions," he added.

© Reuters 2006