When U.S. and Iranian officials meet here today in search of ways to bring stability to Iraq, both sides will have much to ask for, much they could offer -- and only limited expectations for quick progress.
At best, the rare direct talks, which were announced early this month, will start a dialogue between longtime foes who view each other’s involvement in Iraq as unwelcome interference.
Iran will want a deal on the armed Iranian opposition group, Mujahedin Khalq, or People’s Holy Warriors, which is based in eastern Iraq under the watch of the U.S. military.
The Islamic Republic will also want the release of five Iranians detained by the U.S. Army in January. And it will seek firm guarantees that the United States will not use Iraq as a base for military strikes on Iran.
The American delegation will ask that Iran cut what the U.S. says is its support for Shiite and Sunni militants who are greatly contributing to the violence and disorder in Iraq. The U.S. side will demand an end to what it says is trafficking of armor-piercing bombs into Iraq.
The head of the American delegation to the talks, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, is no stranger to the Iranians. According to media reports, the diplomat met with Iranian officials in 2003 at a time when Tehran had put out feelers about normalizing relations with the U.S., which had been severed in 1980 after Iranian militants took 52 Americans hostage.
For his part, the head of the Iranian delegation, Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, has been accused of membership in the Quds Force, the international arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The talks are due to take place at a secret location in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the fortified home of the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy.
The Iraqi government, which like Iran is dominated by Shiite Muslims, will play host to the talks it hopes will help bring about a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran. However, Iraqi officials say the Iranians are not likely to stop any suspected interference unless Iraq’s Arab neighbors do the same as part of a broader agreement.
The Iraqis are expected to be represented by their Foreign Ministry.
“The Iraqi side’s presence will not be a decorative one; we want the Iraqi side to be a genuine partner since the file discussed is Iraq’s issue. Iraq will have a role in determining the agenda of the discussions. Also it will direct the discussions and exert pressure on both sides to deliberate on what serves Iraq’s interest best,” said Abbas Bayati, a Shiite parliament member.
One high-ranking Shiite Muslim official in the Iraqi government, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, predicted Iraq would play the role of honest broker, but he cautioned that talks would not produce instant progress.
“The relations between the United States and Iran are complicated. Resolving them is not easy. It will not happen in one or two meetings, but we should begin. This meeting will focus only on the Iraqi issue,” the official said.
The official made it clear that he was convinced that Iran was backing armed Sunni and Shiite groups and was involved in the violence. “Some of the Katyushas hitting the Green Zone are being supplied by Iran,” he said.
But he warned that any such talks would depend on getting Saudi Arabia and Syria involved.
“I don’t think Iran will put its hands down, while Saudi Arabia and Syria interfere in Iraq.”
The official accused Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service of fronting nongovernmental organizations that assist Sunni insurgent fighters. “Saudi Arabia is not a democratic state. An NGO there does not work without the permission of the government. It is a cover and operates under the intelligence service.”
Another senior Iraqi political leader also linked success to bringing the Arab states into a parallel dialogue. “To think that just Iran and the United States can help stabilize Iraq is a misnomer. At the end of the day we need context. The Arabs, the Iranians and the Americans need to be part of an arrangement that will support Iraqi prosperity and stability and support the Iraqi domestic political pact,” said the leader, who asked not to be identified.
A far bigger prize for Tehran than the five Iranian diplomats detained by the U.S. military would be the Mujahedin Khalq, which is committed to the overthrow of Iran’s ruling clerics and has launched attacks in Iran. The group is based at Camp Ashraf, in Iraq’s eastern province of Diyala, home to a few thousand of the movements’ followers. Tehran would want the camp closed and to have its members handed over or dispersed around the world.
The talks will not include one of the biggest issues between the two nations, Tehran’s efforts to enrich uranium. However, the Iranians are expected to seek assurances that the U.S. will not use Iraq as a staging area to carry out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The reappearance in Iraq of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr after a months-long absence could also be a bargaining chip for the Iranians. Sadr disappeared before the start of a U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad in February and is believed to have been in Iran for at least part of his absence. He led two uprisings against the U.S. military in 2004, and his militia has been a major player in Iraq’s sectarian violence. Iran’s ability to exert influence over him could either ignite greater unrest or help lead Iraq on the path to peace.
“His [Sadr’s] resurfacing at this time clearly, no doubt, has something to do with those talks. The United States obviously wants more Iranian cooperation with security issues in Iraq, and it seems they [Tehran] are willing probably to talk to the United States about that provided they get some guarantees about Shia power ... in Iraq,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite politics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
In the run-up to the talks, U.S. and British-led forces have carried out raids against Shiite militants with alleged links to Tehran. A suspect believed to have ties to a network that smuggles in Iranian armor-piercing bombs that have been used against U.S. forces in Iraq was held during a raid early Sunday, the U.S. military said. The network is also believed to send militants from Iraq to Iran for training, the military said.
Staff writer Saif Hameed in Baghdad and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.