After historic talks, US seeks action by Iran
Security in Iraq was the focus of the first US-Iran talks in nearly 30 years on Monday.
The first public, senior-level talks between the United States and Iran in more than two decades were never going to be a lovefest.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But the fact that the four hours of discussions on Iraq's security took place at all here Monday suggests how much each of the two avowed opponents – and indeed the top leader of each country – wanted them.
On the US side, and for President George Bush, joining these talks signals a new determination to test all diplomatic avenues for bringing greater security and stability to Iraq. Beyond that, it heralds the rise of foreign-policy pragmatists within the US administration.
For Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, sitting down with the US signifies recognition by the world's superpower that Iran is a major power not just in Iraq, but in the Middle East.
Iran underscored that objective Monday by proposing a trilateral mechanism of the US, Iraq, and Iran for addressing security issues, a proposal that if accepted would presumably lock the US into a dialogue with Iran. The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who led the US delegation, did not dismiss the idea outright but said Washington would have to review any such proposals.
Noting that he told the Iranians, led by their ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, that the US first wants to see Iran shutting down supplies of arms and explosives to Iraqi Shiite militias. Mr. Crocker said, "We will wait to see what happens next on the ground."
Crocker's characterization of the talks as "positive" suggests, without sounding overly anxious, that they are an avenue the administration wishes to pursue.
"The talks would not be taking place unless Bush backed them and ... Khamenei backed them," says Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq and Shiite movements at the University of Michigan. "[President Bush] is to the point where he will try anything," he adds, but "it also points to the increased influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice" and the administration's new Iraq team: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Crocker, who recently arrived from Pakistan.
"Khamenei wants new relations with the world, he wants to pursue the dialogue he opened with the West, but he wants this dialogue to produce a new recognition of Iran as a power that must be reckoned with in the region," says Hussain Hafeid, a professor of international relations at Baghdad University. "Sitting down one-on-one with the US," he adds, "is an opportunity to put relations on an equal footing."
No subsequent meeting of the two parties was set after Monday's session, which took place in the offices of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The Iraqi government indicated it would extend an invitation to the US and Iran for another discussion in the near future, and Crocker said the US "will entertain it when we receive it."
But this new dialogue for one of the world's most nettlesome relationships will have to overcome at least two significant roadblocks: First, both countries have powerful opponents to any move that could suggest a US-Iran détènte; and the kind of "proof on the ground" of "better behavior" on the part of the Iranians that Crocker says the US wants to see will be difficult to prove.