May 28th, 2007
Diplomatic thaw produces agreement, no major advances
By James Janega
Tribune staff reporter
May 29, 2007
BAGHDAD -- The U.S. ambassador met with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad on Monday in the first formal bilateral talks between the two nations in more than a quarter century, though the talks alone were characterized by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker as unlikely to lead to specific gains to reduce violence in Iraq.
The talks did not address Iran's pursuit of a nuclear program, or the fate of five Iranians accused of helping militias in Iraq. Iran maintains that the five are diplomats.
Crocker said both governments shared broad agreement on the need for a secure, stable Iraq -- the sole focus of talks.
The Associated Press quoted Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi saying the two sides would meet again within the month, but Crocker told reporters in Baghdad that results would have to precede future conversations between the two parties.
"This is about actions, not just principles, and I laid out before the Iranians a number of our direct specific concerns about their behavior in Iraq, their support for militias that are fighting both the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces," Crocker said after the meeting.
Crocker and Qomi met for four hours in the Green Zone offices of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government has fostered friendly relations with both countries and is eager to see them keep their differences out of Iraq.
The prime minister and other Iraqi officials have expressed concerns that Iraq was becoming the battleground of a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran.
Al-Maliki did not attend the meeting but did greet the two ambassadors as they shook hands, and led them to a conference room around 10:30 a.m.
"We are sure that securing progress in this meeting would, without doubt, enhance the bridges of trust between the two countries," al-Maliki said after the meeting began. Such an improvement could only help Iraq, he said.
Iraq is not the only party keen to see the talks succeed. The United States has been forced to come to grips with Tehran in the course of the war, said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan.
While the Iranians have called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, some regional experts have said Tehran wants to see Iraq's troubles resolved before the U.S. removes its forces.
"Neither country wants Iraq to fall apart," Hiltermann said.
In what Crocker characterized as one of Iran's few concrete proposals Monday, Iran suggested a future "trilateral mechanism" to coordinate security matters in Iraq that includes the U.S., Iraq and Iran. A decision to participate would have to be made in Washington, Crocker said he told the Iranian delegation.
Iran: Admit U.S. policy failed
Iran also sought an admission that U.S. policy in Iraq and the Middle East had failed. "We are hopeful that Washington's realistic approach to the current issues of Iraq by confessing its failed policy in Iraq and the region and by showing a determination to changing the policy guarantees success of the talks and possible further talks," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in Tehran, according to AP.
The American ambassador said the Iranian position had been stated but that discussions Monday had moved on to other topics of broader agreement.
"I would characterize the atmosphere of the talk as businesslike," Crocker said, adding that Iran has similar goals in Iraq. "There was pretty good congruence right down the line -- support for a secure, stable, democratic Iraq, in control of its own security, at peace with its neighbors."
Still, decades of suspicion are unlikely to be quickly resolved, and past attempts to bring together U.S. and Iranian officials over Iraq have fallen short.
The talks also mark a departure from public statements from President Bush, who had resisted direct communication with Iran -- a recommendation of the Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker.
Monday's talks are likely to be scrutinized by Iraq's Arab neighbors, who feel threatened by Iran's growing regional influence over Shiites in countries that historically have had Sunni Arab majorities, Hiltermann said.
In recent days, that concern has been embodied by reports that Arab states were seeking their own nuclear technology as a counterweight to Iran's program.
Recent events have underscored regional tension over the hostility between the U.S. and Iran.
U.S. Navy carrier groups performed exercises in the Persian Gulf last week, and Bush has called for United Nations penalties over Iran's nuclear program -- a bid Iran portrays as technology for energy production but which much of the rest of the world sees as a weapons program.
At the meeting, Crocker said the U.S. complained that Iran was supporting Shiite militias in Iraq, that it has supplied armor-piercing explosives and other arms to groups in Iraq, and that at least some of those activities had been supported by al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
U.S. to gauge Iran's 'behavior'
For its part, Iran said the American presence in Iraq is a threatening occupation on its doorstep, and that the U.S. had inadequately supplied and supported Iraqi forces to address the militias and insurgency gripping the country.
The Iraqi mediator, National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said Iraq would extend an invitation for future talks between the two powers, an offer Crocker said would be considered when it is officially made, and which he said hinges on Iranian actions in coming weeks.
"We're going to want to wait and see not what is said next, but what happens next on the ground -- whether we start to see indications of a change in Iranian behavior," he said.