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America's new path on Iraq: talk to Iran

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2007



BOSTON

The United States has agreed to do what it once insisted it wouldn't do: Talk directly to Iran about Iraq, without preconditions.

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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:

United States

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.

Iran

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.

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