Baghdad gathering an opportunity for dialogue with Iran
Delegates to meet today to discuss the future in Iraq
BAGHDAD -- Washington is sending a veteran Middle East hand. Tehran's envoy is a British-educated diplomat considered to be one of Iran's leading Western analysts.
Combine that with a flexible agenda and a matchmaking Iraqi host -- and the international gathering today to help steer Iraq's future also appears to be a prime opportunity for some icebreaking overtures between Iran and the United States.
But any outreach -- no matter how limited -- would be shadowed by deep suspicions and grievances from both sides in their odd-couple roles: old foes yet also Iraq's two most influential allies.
"Don't expect any miracles," said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, a professor of political affairs at Tehran University.
In fact, expectations have been kept very modest before the conference, which includes delegates from Iraq's six neighbors, the five permanent UN Security Council members, and several Arab representatives.
In Washington, the US chief delegate, David Satterfield, said "we are not going to turn and walk away" if approached by Iran or Syria to discuss Iraq. But Satterfield, the top State Department adviser on Iraq, said Thursday that the United States plans to use the meeting to reinforce its accusations against both nations.
They include US assertions that Syria allows foreign jihadists and Sunni insurgents to cross its border into Iraq, and that weapon shipments from Iran reach Shi'ite militias. Both nations deny the allegations.
Iran's chief envoy, Abbas Araghchi, left Tehran without directly mentioning the United States, but said Iran "hopes to take more steps" to support the US-backed government -- which is led by a Shi'ite prime minister with close ties to Shi'ite dominated Iran.
Iran has strongly denounced the US military presence. The complaints grew more pointed in December after American forces detained two Iranian security agents at the compound of a major Shi'ite political bloc in Baghdad.
Six other Iranians were arrested Jan. 11 at an Iranian liaison office in northern Iraq. The US military said they were members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard -- a charge Tehran denies.
The showdown over Iran's nuclear program also lurks behind any attempt to ease the nearly 28-year diplomatic freeze with Washington.
"But both Iran and the United States realize they are stuck together on Iraq," said Alireza Nourizadeh, chief researcher at the London-based Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. "So perhaps they see this meeting as a way to open some doors for bilateral talks."
For Iran, opening more direct contacts with Washington could help promote their shared interests in Iraq, including trying to stamp out Sunni-led insurgents. US officials, meanwhile, need the support of Iranian-allied political groups in Iraq to keep a lid on Shi'ite militias.
The one-day session in Baghdad carries little pressure for the delegates. It is intended only to pave the way for a high-level gathering, possibly in April.
In Brazil yesterday, President Bush said the message to Syria and Iran wouldn't change.
"We expect you to help this young democracy," Bush said. "We will defend ourselves and the people in Iraq from weapons being shipped in that cause harm; that we will protect ourselves and help the Iraqi people protect themselves against those who would murder the innocent to achieve political objectives."
In September, the United States joined Iran and Syria in talks on Iraq -- although Washington ruled out direct talks with Iran in advance. This time there is an open invitation to Iran.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, said the first point to be made to the Iranians is that they must stop the flow of arms over the border.