From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'M Liane Hansen.

Tomorrow, for the first time in 27 years, 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.

To get an idea of what the discussions mean for the future of Iraq and for the very tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran, we are joined by Gary Sick. He is a professor of Middle East politics at Columbia University; he also served on the staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan.

Gary, it's nice to talk to you.

Professor GARY SICK (Middle East Politics, Columbia University): Good to be with you.

HANSEN: The only issue up for discussion, as I said and they say, is Iraq. There will be no nuclear negotiations. So, I mean, really, how significant is the meeting?

Prof. SICK: Well, I think the fact that they're having the meeting means that it really is quite significant. For 20 - actually, it's now more than 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. In fact, I think the chances of that are extremely small.

But 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 them with a growing civil war.

HANSEN: Why are they playing down expectations?

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

HANSEN: The situation in Baghdad is fluid, to say the least. Is there a chance the meeting won't happen?

Prof. SICK: I'm more optimistic than most people are. I think in fact the Bush administration has taken a decision that it's not going to war with Iran, and it is going to seriously begin negotiations, that this is the first time 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 a long time. So one way to interpret all the things that are going on right now, including the surge and the talks with Iran, is that in fact the 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 that write - handwriting on the wall, and they're not able to get away from it. We'll see. That's, as I say, I'm more optimistic than most of my friends.

HANSEN: Gary Sick is a professor of Middle East politics at Columbia University. He served on the staff of the National Security Council under three presidents. Thank you so much.

Prof. SICK: It was a pleasure to be with you.

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