Bush picks Iran for a (group) dance

Despite a negative drift in its security and politics, Iraq plans two positive steps: One, it has called for talks between Iran, the US, Syria, and other nations about its future; and two, it expects to pass a law on divvying up its oil wealth. Both steps could make it easier for a US troop withdrawal – if Iran cooperates.

If these two initiatives start up as planned this month, and if the US military "surge" to secure Baghdad makes more progress, they should not only help Iraq but also influence the debate in Washington over the timing of an American withdrawal.

But Iran, like many in the US Congress, demands that President Bush commit now to an end of the US military presence in Iraq. Mr. Bush so far refuses to set a date, citing a need for Iraq's weak, year-old government to be able to stand up to insurgents.

Still, the US did bend this week by agreeing to sit down with Iran and other regional countries (as well as several big power nations) to work on Iraq's behalf. "We've listened," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress. (See story.)

Direct US talks with Iran about Iraq have been in the works for years but never seriously pursued. The idea was again pushed last December by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. But it's clear now that the president wanted to first enter such talks – even if they are multilateral and hosted by Iraq – from a position of strength, not with tail-turning momentum toward a dangerous US exit.

He pushed Iraq's leaders to first approve a draft agreement on the key political question of how to distribute the nation's oil revenues among 18 provinces. While some details still need to be negotiated in parliament, the move should help boost Iraq's economy and ease regional tensions.

Bush also dispatched two aircraft carrier groups to the Gulf, won UN sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, and put more troops in Iraq, not fewer. He may also have put Iran on the defensive with allegations of an Iranian hand in sending sophisticated explosive devices to Iraq where they have killed US soldiers.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has waked up to Iran's regional threat and brokered a truce in the Palestinian territories between Iran-backed Hamas and the nationalist Fatah party. In Lebanon, too, the Iran-backed Shiite militia Hizbullah, hurt by its war with Israel and set back by pro-democracy forces, is losing a struggle to oust the government in Beirut.

This coming Iraq "neighbors meeting," as Ms. Rice calls it, will be a test of how well the major players – the US, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia – are willing to work together to end Iraq's divisive role in the Middle East. In fact, the talks may lead to bigger things. As Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The New York Times: "Iraq can be helpful to its neighbors also. It can provide a platform for them to work out their differences."

Using this multilateral forum for direct talks with Iran on other issues is not out of the question for the US. After all, it recently did just that with North Korea in the context of six-party talks, leading to a deal on that nation's nuclear program. But the US must see if Iran is willing to suspend its nuclear project or, as Rice put it, simply "extort" something from the US. Their starting point should be creating a stable Iraq.

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