Iran to attend regional talks on Iraq strife
BAGHDAD: The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran announced Sunday that it would attend a regional conference on Iraq later this week, setting the stage for the first cabinet-level meeting between Iran and the United States since the end of 2004.
The American envoy to the meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that she would not rule out the possibility of conferring directly with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but that she did not foresee any discussions on one of the most divisive issues between the nations, Iran's nuclear program.
In a series of television interviews on Sunday, she emphasized that the conference in Egypt was intended to focus on what Iraq's neighbors and "interested parties" could do to help quell the relentless violence in Iraq.
"This is not a meeting about the United States and Iran," she said on the ABC News program "This Week." "This is a meeting about Iraq and about what Iraq's neighbors and interested parties can do to help stabilize the situation in Iraq."
She then ticked off a list of actions Washington would seek from Tehran in what was effectively a repetition of the accusations that have helped sour relations, including stirring sectarian violence in Iraq and providing Shiite militias with sophisticated weaponry to use in roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices.
"Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters," she said. "Stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders. Stop using advanced I.E.D. technology to kill American soldiers. Stop stirring up trouble among militias that then go and kill innocent Iraqis."
But Iran's agreement to send a high-level official, after weeks of uncertainty about its plans, offers at least reassurance that some diplomatic doors remain open, despite high tensions between the United States and Iran. Besides the nuclear program, which has drawn international censure, the two countries are at odds over recent American naval exercises in Persian Gulf, American accusations that Iran is aiding some parts of the Iraqi insurgence and arming Shiite militias, the American detention of Iranians in Iraq, the nearly two-week detention of 15 British naval personnel by Iran and American assertions that Iranian weapons have been intercepted in Afghanistan.
And Iran's announcement comes at a time when some Western diplomats say both the United States and Iran are intensifying their search for face-saving approaches that would allow their standoff over the nuclear issue to soften enough to allow for substantial talks.
Since the United States announced last month that it would attend the conference, it has been assumed that Iran and Syria, which border Iraq to the east and west, would also attend. Sunday's announcement confirms that despite the dispute over America's detaining of Iranian officials in Iraq, and the long-running fight between the United States and Syria over accusations that Syria has meddled in Lebanon's civil strife, all three countries are seizing the opportunity to look for a diplomatic way to move forward. The regional meeting, set for Thursday and Friday in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheik, is expected to draw the foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors, including Syria, as well as Egypt, Bahrain and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Many of those attending represent Sunni Muslim governments that worry that Iran and Iraq, which are both dominated by Shiite Muslims, represent a growing threat to regional stability and their own power.
The Iraqi and Iranian governments have regular contact, and Ahmadinejad's announcement followed a series of negotiations between the countries, including a visit by Iraq's foreign minister to Tehran last week.
Ahmadinejad confirmed his nation's plans during a telephone call to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, according to a statement issued by Maliki's office and the ISNA news agency in Tehran. "The Islamic Republic of Iran supports the government in Iraq and will support any measure which is aimed at strengthening the government," Ahmadinejad said, according to ISNA.
Ali Larijani, Iran's top national security official, arrived in Baghdad on Sunday to discuss the conference with Iraqi officials, Iraqi and Iranian officials said. According to a spokesman for the Iranian government, the Ahmadinejad government has "some questions and ambiguities about the agenda," The Associated Press reported.
Responding to reports of speculation that the United States had offered concessions to Iran to bring it to the conference, the spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, said Tehran's decision was not linked to any deal having to do with five Iranians who were detained in January by American troops in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. The Americans have accused the men of being Iranian intelligence officers, but the Iranian government has contended that the men are diplomats and has demanded their release.
Given the many competing concerns and agendas among participants at the conference, it is unclear how much progress can be made on the official topic, Iraq's stability, much less on ancillary issues.
The conference was arranged at an earlier regional meeting on Iraq, held in Baghdad in March. The United States representatives were David Satterfield, the senior adviser on Iraq to Rice, and Zalmay Khalilzad, then the ambassador to Iraq. Iran sent a deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi. No breakthroughs between the two sides were reported.
And speculation ran high in November 2004, when Colin Powell, then the Secretary of State, was seated next to Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian foreign minister, at a dinner during a major international conference on Iraq, also held in Sharm el Sheik. Both, however, maintained that they had stuck to pleasantries and polite diplomatic chat.