Iranian radio said Saturday that former President Jimmy Carter wrote to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini offering to serve as a "neutral American channel" in efforts to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon and improve U.S.-Iranian ties.

Khomeini rejected the offer, Tehran Radio said.Carter issued a statement in Atlanta confirming he wrote a letter to Khomeini but saying it was in response to an initiative from Iran.

According to the radio report, monitored in Nicosia, Khomeini issued a statement denying any connection between Iran and the hostages in Lebanon. "Just as I have said before, the relationship of Iran and the United States is like the relationship of the wolf and the lamb, and between these two there can never be reconciliation," the statement said.

The radio quoted Carter's letter as saying, "I hope that the American hostages in Lebanon can be released as soon as possible; this act would remove one of the main hurdles in the re-establishment of friendly relations between Iran and the U.S."

Carter's statement, read to The Associated Press by spokeswoman Carrie Harmon, said: "In my note, I was responding to an initiative from Iran. My purpose was to obtain the release of David Rabhan, a friend of mine who has been imprisoned in Iran for almost nine years.

"My hope is that in the name of justice and humanity, Iran will use its influence to encourage the release of all American hostages by working through normal channels."

Harmon did not identify Rabhan further or say why he was imprisoned. She also said the full text of the letter would not be released.

Fourteen foreigners, including nine Americans, are held by Lebanese Shiite groups believed loyal to Iran. The hostage held longest is American Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press. He was kidnapped March 16, 1985.

The radio said the letter, dated Oct. 30, was received by Khomeini's office and that Iranian experts confirmed it was Carter's handwriting.

"To stop this effort from becoming politicized in our country, and delaying the release of the hostages, a neutral American channel must be used, and we at the Carter Center are prepared to help in every appropriate manner," the radio quoted the letter as saying.

The Carter Center, opened in Atlanta in 1986, houses Carter's presidential library as well as his office and is dedicated to research and discussion of public policy.

The radio quoted Iranian Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani as saying he also received a letter from Carter about the hostages.

"I myself received such a letter from Carter alluding to the sinister politics of ties with Iran and hostage-taking in Lebanon," the radio quoted Rafsanjani as saying.

Ties between the United States and Iran were broken in 1979 when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held diplomats hostage for 444 days. Carter has said the crisis, which took place during his term as president, led to his defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential elections.

The radio said Khomeini ordered his letter made public in order to "prevent any kind of exploitation." It did not elaborate.