BOSTON — The United States has agreed to do what it once insisted it wouldn't do: Talk directly to Iran about Iraq, without preconditions.
After an initial meeting in two weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to sit down in April with the foreign ministers of some 20 countries, including two that the US considers key troublemakers in the region: Iran and Syria.
Though the meeting will be confined to the goal of stabilizing Iraq – not the dispute over Iran's nuclear program – the Bush administration's decision to participate indicates that the days of working from an "our-way-or-the-highway" stance may be over.
Still, the sprawling nature of the regional talks means that understanding what key players want will be crucial to meaningful progress. The key players and their likely goals:
In recent months, US officials have tried to convince the world that Iran is providing explosives and training to militias in Iraq that are attacking US forces. The US also alleges that Syria is failing to prevent Sunni Arab jihadis from crossing its border into Iraq. But most analysts are skeptical that either country plays a crucial role in Iraq's ongoing civil war.
The two countries have also roundly denied the charges, which could set the stage for explosive exchanges across the negotiating table.
Holding the conference reflects an effort to build the Iraqi government's legitimacy in the region. "This initiative is about normalizing the new Iraqi government's relations with the rest of the world," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's part of a process of the government taking on more authority, and part of that is developing better relations with its neighbors."
To be sure, Ms. Rice's announcement does not necessarily mean the administration has wholeheartedly jumped on the "talking with the enemy" bandwagon.
"The administration is still skeptical, but they were not going to be the skunk at the garden party and say we are not going at all," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Noting that Iraq's neighbors all have an interest in Iraq's stability, Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center in Washington says that the open-to-all talks make sense. The US may be interested in addressing what it sees as Iranian interference, he says, but the Iranians are worried about Iraq-originating Kurdish interference in its territory, while Turkey also is concerned about Kurdish elements.
Mr. Clawson says that such a broad conference is unlikely to be the venue for negotiating specific issues like the flow of Iranian pilgrims or smuggling across the Iranian border. It's more likely that the process will serve to encourage more international assistance for Iraq.
Iraqi officials say the Iranians have confirmed they will participate, but Ali Larijani, the head of Iran's national security council, said Wednesday that the country would attend if it was "expedient." Analysts say that Iran won't miss the chance to sit down with the US. It remains angry at US allegations that it's running a secret nuclear-weapons program, but America's apparent belief that Iran can help fix the problems of its neighbor opens up the slight possibility of a quid pro quo – less pressure on nukes in exchange for more help on Iraq.
Iran has been making overtures for more bilateral diplomacy for years, but has been consistently rebuffed by the US, which has demanded that Iran meet preconditions like suspending its uranium enrichment program first. The Iranians will see this as a golden opportunity to get the ball rolling to a more normal relationship, analysts say.
"The Iranians have been signaling they want to do this forever,'' says Bill Beeman, a professor at the University of Minnesota whose recent book, "The Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs," explores the two country's tempestuous relationship. "The thing that the Iranians will value above all about this is that they're sitting down in a situation with the US in which the parties are equals,'' he says. "They get to sit together on an equal playing field without having to kowtow to the US. In the past, "the US has insisted the Iranians somehow have to do penance before the US will talk to them,'' Beeman says.
Iran will also be seeking to make it clear that its shared interests with Iraq over both oil and the flow of Shiite pilgrims across the border make close relations crucial and inevitable, and that efforts to isolate the two countries could backfire.
Britain's interests and perspectives on Iraq are roughly aligned with America's, but it has been much more open to diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors in recent years.
Britain has argued that as neighbors, Iran and Syria can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. When the Iraq Study Group – a US government panel that issued a report urging a change in the Bush administration's course earlier this year – recommended that the two countries be drawn into dialog, Britain welcomed its report. At the time, the Bush administration rejected that advice.
Still, Downing Street is skeptical about how constructive the talks with Tehran and Damascus will prove. "Meeting is good but results have to flow from meetings," says a British foreign office spokesman.
Like Iran, Syria will see the meeting as a chance to get a "foot in the door" with the US which has cold-shouldered Damascus for the past two years. Despite Washington's icy relations with Damascus, the Syria regime of President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly said it wants to resume full dialog with the US and that it's willing to revive peace talks with Israel.
Analysts say Syria will seek to use the meeting to advance its interests outside of Iraq. "Probably the immediate priority is Lebanon, followed by the Palestinian and Israeli issue," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs.
A United Nations probe into the killing of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri has implicated Syria. Damascus denies any involvement. The US has backed demands that those involved with the killing be prosecuted, even if they're found to be Syrian officials. Syria is worried that a proposed international tribunal to try Hariri's killers will be used as a political tool by the US to weaken the regime. It's seeking to persuade the Americans to ease the pressure.
Syria also wants to resume peace talks with Israel, and says it is willing to agree to a full peace with the Jewish state in exchange for the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. But Israel has been split over the Syrian overtures. The Syrians are hoping to improve their image as potentially serious partners for peace and thereby ease America's pressure.
In exchange, Syria could help in Iraq, Mr. Tabler says, by encouraging the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria to try to convince their cross-border tribesmen to stop supporting the insurgency, and by tightening security along its porous 400-mile frontier with Iraq.
The Russians are intensely worried about how Middle East destabilization might affect Russia's neighbors in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as attitudes among their own population of 20 million Muslims.
Russia wants to reestablish its credentials as a big-power player in the region, analysts say, and more engagement on Iraq creates an opportunity to do that. President Vladimir Putin has been seeking to hold Russia up as an alternative, more accommodating pole to what is now often seen as a brash and bullying America. It also has major business interests in Iran and Syria.
"Russia has repeatedly said it wants to see the Iraq problem solved with the involvement of Iraq's neighbors and the entire world community, through engagement and dialog and not through the use of force," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the government's Diplomatic Academy, which trains Russian diplomats. "Without Russian involvement you couldn't have this dialog ... because Russia can play the role of mediator at that table."
Iraq, of course, wants peace and stability, as well as to be treated as an equal by its neighbors, particularly by Sunni Arab states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt that are uncomfortable with the Shiite political ascendancy inside the country. The Iraqi government also worries that these neighbors, the US, and Iran are turning the country into a proxy battleground for their own disputes and are eager to see all sides sit down together and tensions defused.
• Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed from Washington, and correspondents Nicholas Blanford, Fred Weir, and Mark Rice-Oxley contributed from Beirut, Moscow, and London, respectively.