US balancing act in dealing with Iran
By Tom Raum, Associated Press Writer
The prospect of direct US-Iranian talks on Iraq represents an important shift in relations between the two adversaries.
The development comes during US Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to the region, where he is trying to convince moderate Arab states that the US will stand firm against Tehran's encroachment. He also is seeking to build support for the delicate Iraqi government.
Cheney is only one part of a US tag team. The second member, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seems to be playing on the other side of the street.
The vice president has emphasized a hard line on Iran over the past week in stops in moderate Arab nations and talks to US troops in Iraq and on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
He has urged Arab countries to do more to help stabilize the Iraqi government and hinted that Washington would work to keep Iran from dominating the region.
Rice is leading a countervailing effort to reach out to Iran despite serious doubts whether there is anyone willing to reach back.
The two tracks crossed on Sunday.
Iran's official news agency reported that the US sought face-to-face meetings in Baghdad with the Iranians to discuss security in Iraq - and that Tehran would accept.
Cheney's spokeswoman said after the vice president's meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the US was willing to talk to Iran if the discussions just deal with Iraq and were held at the "ambassadorial level."
It is the first time Tehran has gone for the offer. But spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride noted that the idea of such talks had been floated before, in what the State Department is calling the "Baghdad channel."
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe later said the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, would meet with Iranian in Baghdad in the next few weeks.
"The president authorized this channel because we must take every step possible to stabilize Iraq and reduce the risk to our troops even as our military continue to act against hostile Iranian-backed activity in Iraq," Johndroe said while traveling with President Bush in Virginia.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said, "This is the same channel that has been open to both sides for some time. ... But it hasn't been used before in its most formal sense."
Little by little, the administration seems to be bowing to political pressure and accepting a recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to do more diplomatically to engage Iran and Syria.
"I was heartened to see that the United States and Iran are finally, evidently, going to sit down and talk. I've been calling for engagement with Iran for four years," said Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Iran is not going to do us any favors, but it's in their interest to find some common denominators here," Hagel said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.
Rice is seeking to build on a recent regional conference on Iraq that she attended with diplomats from Syria and Iran. The meeting, aimed at achieving a consensus to stabilize Iraq, did not produce the breakthrough for which Rice and others had hoped.
The secretary promised the Iraqis the US would follow up in trying to engage Iran and Syria and she did not rule out talks in the future at her level. The upcoming Baghdad meeting can be seen as an intermediate step.
"One needs to be very careful about confusing dialogue with progress," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
He said huge differences remain - on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, Iran's growing military capability and its role in Lebanon. "There is no meaningful prospect for a 'grand bargain,' in spite of some well-meaning voices," Cordesman said.
Some Arab states are concerned about predominantly Shiite Iran's recent efforts to extend its influence, not only in Shiite-majority Iraq but among other neighbors with large Shiite populations.
In his travels, Cheney sought to reassure states such as Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni, and the moderate United Arab Emirates that the US would serve as a counterbalance to ambitious Iran.
He pledged that "we'll keep the sea lanes open" and said the US would join with allies to keep Iran "from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region." Cheney has emphasized links between Iran and sophisticated roadside bombs used to kill US troops in Iraq.
Yet while Cheney was warmly received by Emirates leaders Saturday, Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Abu Dhabi on Sunday to great fanfare.
Aaron David Miller, a former US State Department adviser on Mideast issues to both Republican and Democratic administrations, said the diplomatic dance between Washington and Tehran is a difficult and high-stakes one, especially for Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis understand that if we end up with a crisis with Iran, either because the Israelis or the Americans use military force, that they're going to be extremely vulnerable to Iranian retaliation - particularly if the Israelis use Iraqi, Saudi or Jordanian air space, which they would have to," Miller said.
Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said expectations should be "modest, given the depth of mutual mistrust and ill will which currently exists."
Interestingly, on Sunday, it was Cheney's staff - not the White House or State Department - that offered the first official confirmation of the upcoming talks.
That appeared to reassure some top Republicans.
"Well, the vice president indicated as long as the discussions are about the Iraq security issue, the administration was comfortable with it. I don't see anything wrong with that. I think the Iranians are part of the problem in Iraq. To the extent that they want to discuss discontinuing that kind of mischievous behavior, I think that would be helpful," Mitch McConnell, the US Senate's Republican leader, said on "Late Edition" on CNN.
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