Will U.S.-Iran Talks Be Start of Something Big?

Monday, for the first time in nearly three decades, representatives of the United States and Iran plan to meet face-to-face for open and formal discussions in Baghdad.

On the table is one issue: security for Iraq. Both sides say talks will be limited, and are playing down expectations. But the meeting is certainly symbolic.

What do the discussions mean for the future of Iraq and for the tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran? Gary Sick, professor of Middle East politics at Columbia University, served on the staff of the National Security Council under three presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He offers his insights in a conversation with Liane Hansen:

The only issue up for discussion is Iraq. There will be no nuclear negotiations. So how significant is this meeting?

I think the fact that they're having the meeting means that it really is quite significant. For 28 years the United States and Iran have not had a formal, bilateral, face-to-face meeting that each side actually acknowledged. That's a big deal. It doesn't mean that all of our problems are going to be resolved on Monday. I think the chances of that are extremely small. The reason they're meeting is because we need Iran in order to solve security problems in Iraq and they need us because they really don't want to see a complete breakdown of order on their western border and face a growing civil war [in Iraq].

Both sides are playing down expectations. Why?

First of all, I think they're right to play down expectations. I think it's going to be mostly each side feeling each other out, seeing what the agenda is. Then if there's some measure of opening, there will be a second or a third or a fourth meeting when real business will start to get done.

The situation in Baghdad is fluid. Is there a chance this meeting won't happen?

I'm more optimistic than most people are. I think in fact the Bush administration has taken a position that it's not going to go to war with Iran and it is going to seriously begin negotiations, and that this is the first sign of that. I've seen these things fall apart in the past. But you know, I think both sides are more serious about it this time than I've seen them before. And also, at the same time, both sides are being nastier to each other right now than they have been for some time. So one way to interpret all the things that are going on right now, including the "surge" [in U.S. troop strength] and the talks with Iran is that, in fact, the [Bush] administration itself does have a timeline and they really do plan to start withdrawing forces, in, say, early next year. They don't want to say so in advance, but they see the handwriting on the wall and they're not able to get away from it. We'll see. As I say, I'm more optimistic than most of my friends.

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