Iraq's neighbors take first small steps toward working together

The weekend's regional conference in Baghdad was modest, but it nevertheless accomplished two things: It promoted the legitimacy of Iraq's new government among reluctant neighbors, and it heralded the Bush administration's evolving conversion from unilateralism to hard-nosed diplomacy under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

A second, ministerial-level meeting in the weeks ahead will draw together an even larger assembly to keep regional players involved in Iraq, the conference decided. And even though the weekend meeting was mostly limited to an exchange of accusations, US officials did speak to the Iranians present – paving the way for Secretary Rice to sit at the same table with her counterpart from Tehran as early as next month.

The last time a meeting of Iraq's neighbors was held in Baghdad, it ended in a brawl. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait followed.

This time, mortars fell as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari spoke to the representatives of neighboring countries, the United States, and other foreign powers.

It was a reminder of the security void that the officials were assembled to discuss. Yet by affirming plans for a larger ministerial meeting, forming working groups to take up issues like border security, and simply assembling representatives of increasingly antagonistic and suspicious regional players, the conference did allow the new Iraqi government to take a step toward establishing its legitimacy in the neighborhood.

"This has a lot of symbolic value for the Iraqis, because it puts them out there at least on the surface as in the driver's seat of their own affairs in the region," says Wayne White, a former Iraq expert at the State Department who is now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "The Iraqis are very sensitive about that."

At the same time, contacts between American and Iranian officials, even if they remained at the level of trading barbs, cracked open the door to more substantive contacts, says Mr. White.

"It begins the process of doing what the Iraq Study Group suggested from the beginning, which is engaging Syria and Iran," adds White, who was an adviser to the panel headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former congressman Lee Hamilton.

The panel's conclusion last December that the US should deepen diplomatic efforts with all Iraq's neighbors was initially rebuffed by President Bush. But Rice has moved in the direction of talks – not just with Iran and Syria, but with North Korea as well – after first tightening the screws aimed at these countries so as to enter talks from "a position of strength," State Department officials say.

At the Baghdad conference, all eyes were open for signs of a US-Iran defrosting. Both sides have reasons beyond Iraq to test the diplomatic waters, even if with only a big toe at this stage.

Analysts in Tehran say that, despite stern anti-US rhetoric from some officials, Iran has been searching for a way to engage Washington. By doing so, it wants to address a wider range of issues, including Iran's controversial nuclear program, that have kept the two countries estranged since 1979.

"For Iran, this is not only about Iraq or even security guarantees [from the US that it will not attack]," says Mohammed Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political scientist who has just returned from a three-year period at think tanks in Washington. "Iran is looking for a strategic opening to be treated as an equal player in the region," says Mr. Semati. "Iran wants to get the US to the same table, but they don't think the US is genuine and willing to expand talks beyond Iraq."

One reason the US is now willing to try the diplomatic waters with Tehran is that it recognizes the Iranians have been both helpful and troublesome for Iraq, some US analysts say. "The Iranians have been quite helpful in some respects, in terms of the economy and some political areas, and I think the idea is to see where that can go," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

By contrast, most of Iraq's Arab neighbors especially "have been real laggards in working with the Iraqi government," he notes. The US and the Iraqis will be watching to see if the Baghdad meeting marked a "turning point" in those relations, he adds.

Another explanation for the initial opening between Washington and Tehran is that both sides are coming from a perceived position of strength, others say. The US "feels its pressure on Iran has worked, and so is in a better position, and Iran feels it has significant influence in Iraq," notes Semati.

Still, both sides have so far stuck to barbs and counterbarbs. Washington pursued the accusations it has made against Iran in recent months, over alleged weapons and roadside bomb shipments across the border.

At one point in the meeting, David Satterfield, State Department Iraq envoy, pointed to his briefcase and said it contained evidence of Iran's meddling in Iraq. Iranian officials shot back that the US is "suffering from intelligence failure" and trying to blame others for its problems in Iraq.

The hard-line Kayhan newspaper – whose director is an official representative of Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – was unrelenting in its criticism of the Baghdad meeting. The paper blamed Washington for recent "provocations" against Iran, including the "US troops raid on the Iranian consulate in Arbil and their kidnapping of Iranian diplomats."

Still, the Baghdad contacts underscore a new US willingness to talk with Iran, some analysts say – even if the hopes for accomplishing much through them are not very high.

"The US has vacillated over the last year as to whether it should open up to a functional relationship with Iran, and what this meeting says is the US has decided to try to have that cooperation," says Mr. Clawson, whose think tank is often close to the thinking of the Bush administration.

That said, he adds, the thaw between the two antagonists "really can't go very far," largely because "the Iranians are going to want things that the US is going to find unacceptable."

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