US-Iran talks on Iraq could be diplomatic breakthrough: analysts

Date: 03-19-06

WASHINGTON (AFP) - While US officials played down the importance of eventual talks with Iran on Iraq, analysts said they could be a significant start toward defusing a generation of US-Iranian hostility.

"This is a very, very positive opening, potentially," Judith Kipper, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of chances for the first direct discussions between Tehran and Washington since their diplomatic break in 1980.

"This is just turning a page. It may produce something (and) if it does it may lead to other things," said Kipper, who heads the New York-based council's Middle East Forum.

Iran's announcement Thursday that it was willing to discuss the carnage in Iraq with a US delegation was a bright spot in ties that had sunk to new lows amid recriminations over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

But Washington, which last year authorized Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Iraq to reach out for Iranian help in stabilizing the embattled country, was quick to minimize expectations from the overture.

Officials here stressed there would be no negotiations, only an exchange over US concerns that Iran was backing murderous Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq and providing materiel for deadly roadside bomb attacks.

Above all, they were firm that any talks would be totally separate from efforts to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, an issue that was currently before the UN Security Council.

A senior State Department official, who asked not to be named, said Khalilzad had an extremely narrow mandate in dealing with a country still branded here as part of an "axis of evil."

"Iran is doing stuff in Iraq that we don't like and we want them to stop. We think that talking to them directly might help achieve that objective," the official said. "To read more into it is really not where we are."

Washington has in recent months broadened its verbal assault on Iran as the top threat to the world, a "central banker" for global terrorism and a regional troublemaker as well as budding nuclear power.

It has also cast a skeptical eye on Iranian gestures: "We make statements, they make statements," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Thursday. But analysts said the latest move by Tehran could be different.

They said it was significant that word of Iran's readiness to talk to the Americans came from Ali Larjani, head of its Supreme National Security Council, its nuclear chief and one of the country's most visible officials.

Also crucial, they said, was the fact that Larijani made the announcement to the Islamic Republic's hard-line parliament before talking to US newspapers and other foreign press.

"For the first time, talking to the US has the endorsement of a very powerful conservative faction in Iran," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Iran and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

Analysts said Iran had as much reason as the Americans to fear an all-out civil war in Iraq, where violence between Shiites and Sunnis has escalated three years after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Kipper saw other benefits for the Iranians from the offer of talks: "It demonstrates to the world that they are an important player, the US needs them, the US is in a quagmire (in Iraq), can't get out without them."

No progress has been reported in organizing meetings between the countries, which have had occasional contact through the United Nations or multinational forums such as deliberations on the future of Afghanistan.

US officials showed little optimism that direct talks would make much of a change in the situation on the ground in Iraq, and suggested Tehran was simply trying to take heat off its nuclear dispute with the West.

But the possibility of a new approach to Tehran, even limited in scope, could be welcome to Washington as its grapples with an increasingly truculent regime led by President Mohammed Ahmadinejad.

The US drive to threaten Iran with sanctions for its nuclear activities faces tough going in the UN Security Council. Nor has Washington had great success whipping up support against Iran as a danger to Middle East peace.

With virtually all ties cut since the 1979 seizure of US hostages in Tehran, the US administration admits it has little economic leverage with the Iranians, leaving speculation hanging on possible military action down the road.

Analysts such as Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said eventual talks on Iraq could open the way to broader bilateral consultations.

"It's significant in that it changes the atmosphere," Alterman said. "It creates opportunities to build confidence."


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