U.S. set to join Iran and Syria in talks on Iraq
WASHINGTON: American officials said Tuesday that they had agreed to hold the highest-level contact with the Iranian authorities in more than two years as part of an international meeting on Iraq.
The discussions, scheduled for the next two months, are expected to include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts.
The announcement, first made in Baghdad and confirmed by Rice, that the United States would take part in two sets of meetings among Iraq and its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, is a shift in President George W. Bush's avoidance of high-level contacts with the governments in Damascus and, especially, Tehran.
Critics of the administration have long said that it should do more to engage its regional rivals on a host of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Lebanon. That was the position of the Iraq Study Group, the high level commission that last year urged direct, unconditional talks that would include Iran and Syria.
While the newly scheduled meetings may not include direct negotiations between the United States and Iran, and are to focus strictly on stabilizing Iraq rather than other disputes, they could crack open a door to a diplomatic channel.
Iraqi officials had been pushing for such a meeting for several months, but Bush administration officials refused until the Iraqi government reached agreement on pressing domestic matters, including guidelines for nationwide distribution of oil revenue and foreign investment in the country's immense oil industry, administration officials said. The new government of Iraq maintains regular ties with Iran.
"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited Syria and Iran to attend both of these regional meetings," Rice told a Senate panel on Tuesday, in discussing the talks, which will include Britain, Russia, and a host of international organizations and Middle Eastern countries.
The first meeting — which will include senior Bush administration officials like the State Department Iraq envoy David Satterfield, will be in Baghdad in the first half of March, administration officials said. In early April, Rice will attend a ministerial level conference, presumably with her Iranian and Syrian counterparts, which will likely be somewhere else in the region, administration officials said.
A year ago, Iranian and American officials announced a planned meeting between the American ambassador to Baghdad and Iranian officials to help stabilize Iraq but the meeting never occurred.
The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, called America's anticipated face-to-face contact with Iran and Syria — two countries that the Bush administration has accused of destabilizing Iraq — "very significant."
"Iraq is becoming a divisive issue in the region," Zebari said in a telephone interview from Denmark, where he is traveling on business. But, he continued, "Iraq can be helpful to its neighbors also. It can provide a platform for them to work out their differences."
The United States has accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, including shipping lethal weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq which the Bush administration says have been used in attacks against American troops.
The new United States intelligence chief, Mike McConnell, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that Iran was training anti-American Iraqi Shiites at sites in Lebanon and Iran to use armor-piercing weapons against American troops. McConnell said it was "probable" that top Iranian leaders, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were aware that weapons had been supplied by Iran.
A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said the Iranian-made weapons would be "certainly at the top of our list" in the meetings.
The issue of whether the United States should talk to Iran and Syria has been a steady drumbeat in Washington for several months. When the Iraq Study Group raised it in December, it was quickly brushed off by Bush, who instead embarked on the more confrontational approach.
In addition to the accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq, the United States has also been confronting Iran over its nuclear program, which Bush administration officials say is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, a charge that Tehran denies. Vice President Dick Cheney said last week that "all options are still on the table" for Washington to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a comment that has heightened fears that the administration is considering attacking Iran's nuclear sites.
Administration officials characterized the conflicting signals as part of a larger diplomatic strategy for dealing with Iran that verges on a high-level game of chicken. One senior administration official said that while some Bush officials have advocated looking for ways to talk to Iran and Syria, they did not want to appear to be talking to either country from a position of weakness. By ratcheting up the confrontational talk, the administration official said, the United States was in more of a driver's seat. He asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
"We became convinced that the Iranians were not taking us seriously," said Philip D. Zelikow, who until December was the top aide to Rice. "So we've done some things to get them to take us seriously, so now we can try diplomacy."
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, called the announcement a "first step, but it is not enough on its own."
"Our national security requires a robust diplomatic effort in the Middle East, and the Bush administration cannot again settle for mere half measures," he said.
Still, administration officials made it clear that, at least for now, any engagement would be limited to talks about Iraq, and not larger issues like Iran's nuclear program.
The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamist revolution and the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran. America still has diplomatic relations with Syria, including a chargé d'affaires at the American Embassy in Damascus.
Rice and her deputies have, for several months, pointed to an international conference on Iraq that was established after the American invasion as an available channel to talk to Iran and Syria. Administration officials were working with the United Nations and the Iraqi government last fall to set up the next meeting of the conference, which is sometimes called the International Compact on Iraq. But American officials put off the meeting in part to press the Iraqi government to pass the oil law, administration officials said. The Iraqi government approved a draft of the law on Monday.
As of now, Rice has announced no plans to hold separate one-on-one talks with her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, at the planned April meeting.
In 2004, the first meeting of the International Compact on Iraq, held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheik, opened with chatter about whether then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would hold direct talks with his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi.
Powell and Kharrazi did not hold a formal session. But the Egyptian hosts of the meeting made the two talk to each other, by seating them side-by-side at dinner. Afterward, an annoyed Powell said that he and Kharrazi stuck to polite diplomatic chitchat, discussing subjects like reconstruction after the earthquake in Bam, Iran, and avoiding sensitive topics like the disagreement over Iran's nuclear program.