U.S. and Iran make little progress
There were no major breakthroughs Monday as U.S. and Iranian diplomats held their first formal direct talks in more than a quarter of a century to discuss security in Iraq. But no one had expected any.
At best, the envoys and their Iraqi hosts had hoped the encounter would get two longtime foes talking. And on that there was some slight progress: Iran proposed forming a “trilateral mechanism” to discuss ways to ease the conflict in Iraq.
Iraqi officials welcomed the suggestion, but with an emphasis that any discussions had to include them, said government spokesman Ali Dabbagh, who was part of the Iraqi delegation headed by national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was more circumspect.
“That would of course be a decision for Washington,” Crocker said at a news briefing in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.
“My comment at the time was that that sounded very much like the meeting that we were sitting in,” he said in a separate conference call with journalists in Washington. “It was not apparent to me exactly what the distinction was between what they were proposing and what we were already doing.”
During a news conference at his embassy in Baghdad, Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi did not specify what he had in mind.
The talks in the Green Zone office of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki represented a shift in the Bush administration’s stance toward Iran.
The administration initially rejected proposals by the Iranians and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in Washington to open negotiations about security in Iraq. But the U.S. administration has edged away from that position in recent months.
In March, U.S. and Iranian delegates attended a Baghdad conference of Iraq’s neighbors, and this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefly exchanged pleasantries with her Iranian counterpart at a regional security meeting in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.
On Monday, Maliki greeted the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors, who shook hands, and led them into a conference room where their delegations sat across a long table from each other, with Maliki at the head, for preliminary remarks. The Iraqi leader then left, and the meeting continued in another room, with the three sides sitting at separate tables arranged in a triangular formation.
All parties involved described the meeting as positive. During four hours of talks, the negotiators tackled the issues “honestly and transparently,” Kazemi-Qomi said. Crocker, who speaks fluent Arabic, characterized the encounter as a “business-like” discussion that alternated freely among English, Arabic and Persian. There was even an occasional joke, according to one person in the room.
There was broad agreement on the principles governing U.S. and Iranian policy toward Iraq. The U.S. and Iran expressed support for a stable, democratic Iraq that is in control of its own security and at peace with its neighbors, Crocker said at a separate news conference in the Green Zone. And both sides reaffirmed their support for Maliki.
But Crocker said he told the Iranians that “this is about actions, not just principles,” and that they must stop arming, equipping and training militias that are fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces. Crocker said the Iranians rejected the allegations and did not respond in detail to his concerns.
The Iraqis later asked the Iranians over lunch without the Americans why they had not been willing to discuss security specifics, said an Iraqi official at the gathering. The Iranians said that such matters could be discussed at their proposed tripartite committee, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media.
During the three-way talks, the Iranians called the U.S. presence in Iraq an occupation and criticized the United States’ multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Iraq’s security forces as inadequate, Crocker said.
Iran even offered to help train and equip Iraqi forces, said the Iraqi official, who was also at the meeting. But Crocker said this was not the subject of Monday’s encounter, a point supported by an Iraqi delegate, the official said.
The Iraqi government said it would invite the U.S. and Iran to meet again. “We had a positive attitude regarding this suggestion,” Kazemi-Qomi said.
Crocker said the U.S. would consider the invitation but that “the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss further meetings.”
“I think we are going to want to wait and see not what is said next, but what happens next on the ground, whether we start to see some indications of a change in Iranian behavior,” he said.
Though there have been quiet talks between the two sides before, the outlook going into the meeting was not auspicious. The talks were narrowly focused on Iraq, but there were wider issues dividing the two sides.
Washington says Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium are aimed at building weapons, but Iran says it needs the technology to produce energy. Iran also fears that the United States will seek to overthrow the government in Tehran, as it did in Iraq. And both sides have complaints about detainees, including five Iranians seized in Iraq this year and a number of Iranian Americans apprehended in Iran in recent weeks.
The United States froze diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.
Leading up to the talks, there was posturing on both sides. The U.S. Navy conducted exercises in the Persian Gulf last week, and Iran claimed Saturday to have identified spy rings organized by the United States and its allies.
Analysts were guardedly optimistic about the outcome of the meeting.
“Expectations were fairly low, frankly, because of the hostility that exists between the two countries, and because it only concerned the issue of Iraq, when of course the major issue is the nuclear one,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan. “So what is coming out of it is actually looking pretty good.
“They’ve sat together,” Hiltermann said. “They’ve talked about issues. They haven’t run out screaming from the room.”
Times staff writers Ned Parker and Saif Hameed in Baghdad and Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.