Iraq May Bring U.S. and Iran Together for Talks

Few nations distrust each other as much as the United States and Iran. But a mutual interest in containing the violence in Iraq may soon bring the two together for talks. The discussions would be limited to the situation in Iraq. But some believe that if these talks go well, negotiations on other topics may be possible.

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Now, it's widely believed that Iran has considerable influence inside Iraq, so it may be significant that soon, we're not sure exactly when, the United States will begin talks with Iran, something they've rarely done over the last quarter century. These talks will be limited to the situation in Iraq, a topic of central importance to both countries. They're not expected to discuss another development. At American urging, the United Nations Security Council is demanding that Iran stop enriching uranium.

Few pairs of nations distrust each other quite so much as the US and Iran, but if these talks help bring stability to Iraq, there are hopes that diplomatic contacts could expand. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

President Bush made the decision late last year to permit contact with Iranian diplomats over Iraq, but Iranian reaction was initially negative. Only after Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke out publicly earlier this month did it become clear that the Iranian government was willing to talk to the U.S.

Ayatollah ALI KHAMENEI (Supreme Religious Leader, Iran): (Foreign speaking)

SHUSTER: If Iranian officials think they can make the Americans clearly understand the issues pertaining to Iraq, we have no objections, Khamenei told a crowd in the city of Mashad on the occasion of the Iranian New Year. But he went on, We don't support the talks if they become a forum for American bullying.

It has fallen to the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to make the talks happen. Senior Bush administration officials don't sound like they expect much. This is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussing Khalilzad's role at a recent appearance at the Sate Department.

Secretary of State CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We have found it useful from time to time to talk about concerns on the security side, to raise our concerns on the security side, and he has that standing authority. Those talks would be limited to Iraq and limited to security issues.

SHUSTER: More than anything, recent events in Iraq seem to be propelling the U.S. and Iran to consult one another. Last month's bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, the horrible escalation in violence afterward, and the continuing inability of Iraqi parties to form a government have combined to create an atmosphere of crisis. That is why the Iranians are now willing to come to the table, says Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California.

Professor VALI NASR (Professor, Naval Post-Graduate School): Clearly Iran is very worried about Iraq. It became very worried about Iraq after the bombing of the shrine and the kind of chaos that followed. The Iranians may be happy for the U.S. to be busy with the insurgency in Iraq, but a complete collapse of law and order in Iraq, or a civil war, can be very costly, and very unpredictable, and very undesirable for Iran.

SHUSTER: Iranian officials fear that a wider civil war in Iraq would mean instability in Iran itself. In recent months, there have already been reports of unrest and violence in three parts of Iran: in Khuzestan, the oil rich Arab minority region near Iraq, in Iranian Kurdistan, and in Baluchestan in Iran's east. Abbas Milani, who runs the Iran Democracy Project, believes Iran has clear goals going into the talks, related but not limited to Iraq.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Co-Director, Iran Democracy Project): The promise is if we can help you pacify the insurgency, in return, obviously, the United States has to soften its position against the Islamic Republic. That seems to be the quid pro quo.

SHUSTER: The Bush administration has frequently accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, most recently of smuggling in explosives that have turned up in roadside bombs. There is no doubt that Iran has been involved in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's overthrow; especially in its support for Shiite political parties whose leaders were in exile for many years in Iran. But Vali Nasr points out that Iran has even deeper religious and cultural ties to Iraq: through the return of tens of thousands of Iraqis who fled Saddam's regime, through huge Iranian investments in Karbala and Najaf, and through close Shiite religious connections.

Prof. NASR: I don't think we have an appreciation of the depths of relations. And when we say that Iran should stay out of Iraq, that might be feasible to say that Iran politically should not meddle in influencing a political party in Iraq. But we cannot exclude Iran's cultural, religious and political ties with Iraq.

SHUSTER: Both the U.S. and Iran insist the focus of the talks will be limited to Iraq. Nevertheless, the very fact that these two nations will sit down at the same table has sparked hope beyond the Persian Gulf for improvement in other areas, especially the thorny issue of Iran's nuclear activities. With the potential conflict over this looming at the U.N. Security Council, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, recently expressed the desire that the two will take on other issues.

Dr. MOHAMED EL BARADEI (Director-General, International Atomic Energy Agency): When it comes to regional security, I think it's only logical that we have dialogue between Iran and the United States. So it makes perfect sense. It might not happen right away. But as negotiation progress, I would like very much to see a direct engagement between the U.S. and Iran.

SHUSTER: The Iraq talks will be challenging enough, but Abbas Milani believes that if they go well that will help prepare the public in both the U.S. and Iran for further contacts.

Mr. MILANI: I think it's a very untenable proposition that the two sides would talk and would only talk about Iraq. But I think both sides are trying to get their respective constituencies ready for a more substantive engagement.

SHUSTER: When the talks are held they are likely to take place in Baghdad. Precisely who will take part is not yet known.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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