Iran, US talk on Iraq: now what?

Both sides seek a US exit, but Iran must first end support for insurgents who kill US troops and Iraqis.

Democrats in Congress failed last week to force a deadline for a US retreat from Iraq. This week, it was Iran's turn. American and Iranian diplomats held historic talks yesterday with Iran hoping to ease a US exit from the war.

The fact that these talks took place at all was a signal that both sides seek a new chapter in Iraq.

Four hours of negotiations between their respective ambassadors to Baghdad, held in the chambers of the Iraqi prime minister, focused solely on Iraq.

That singular concentration, too, was a sign that the two countries may try to isolate the Iraq question from the other issues that divide them, such as Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Equally hopeful was that the US did not dismiss out of hand an Iranian proposal to set up a "trilateral security mechanism" for Iraq that would include the US, Iran, and Iraq. The Iranians, who want a US timetable for withdrawal, clearly want these talks to go on.

But a continuance should be contingent on whether Iran heeds specific US demands for it to stop supporting Iraqi militias that kill civilians and American soldiers. The world will know soon enough if Iran has complied.

Evidence has built up that Iran's theocracy has tried to keep the Iraqi pot boiling for the US by supporting insurgents. But in recent days, Iran's main ally in Iraq, the rebel Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, has resurfaced after reportedly hiding for months in Iran. There are signs he is ready to work with the Iraqi government for stability. His Mehdi Army militias have recently lain low while the US conducts a military surge.

In Iran itself, an internal power struggle may account for a new approach toward Iraq. Just two weeks ago, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asked the question: How is it possible to hold talks with an "arrogant, bullying, expansionist" US? But now Iran has done just that.

The government also said last week it would raise domestic gasoline prices by 25 percent, an apparent slap at President Mahmud Ahmadinejad who is an economic populist. His bellicose statements toward the US and Israel have also helped make it easier for the UN to tighten economic sanctions on Iran for ignoring international demands to suspend its nuclear program. With Mr. Ahmadinejad's star falling, the legislature last month shortened his term by four months.

Iran also hurt itself with the recent arrest and imprisonment of Haleh Esfandiari, a visiting US-Iranian woman who is a prominent US-based scholar. She is charged with subversion. If the arrest was meant to be a bargaining chip, it was a clumsy one that has backfired.

Iran may sing a new tune in Iraq, and it may also do the same in talks this Thursday with a European Union envoy over its nuclear program. With the International Atomic Energy Agency predicting last week that Iran's uranium enrichment could produce a bomb within as short a time as three years, the UN needs to keep looking for a change of attitude in Tehran while not letting up on imposing more sanctions.

It may just be that the bite of the UN sanctions on a regime failing to meet its people's basic needs is what brought Iran to the table on Iraq and, perhaps, its destabilizing nuclear program. Iran can't afford to continue as a pariah state for much longer.

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