US-Iran talks focus on Iraq security

US envoy to Iraq described conversation as "businesslike" and said that on "policy and principle" level, Iranian position was "very close" to US's.

iran us meeting 298 (photo credit: AP)
iran us meeting 298
(photo credit: AP)
In its first formal high-level talks with Iran in almost three decades, the US pressed the Islamic Republic on its activity in Iraq but did not address Teheran's nuclear program, US officials said following the meeting on Monday. US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who held the talks in Baghdad with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, described the conversation as "businesslike" and said that on the "policy and principle" level, the Iranian position was "very close" to that of the US. Both parties agreed on the need for a stable and democratic Iraq, Crocker reported, adding that the US strongly pressed Iran to curtail its support for attacks on American troops there. Despite its limited focus, the direct talks represented a dramatic shift in the US posture on Iran, with which it broke off diplomatic relations in 1980. Following the meeting, the Iranian envoy said more talks would take place within a month, but US officials said nothing would be decided on until the Iraqis issued a follow-up invitation. The talks come amid spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq, some of which the US claims Iran has instigated, but also against the backdrop of international frustration with Iran's continuing nuclear program. The United States has said in the past it would talk directly with Iran on its nuclear ambitions only if it first suspends uranium enrichment. The Bush administration tried to draw a distinction between Monday's talks on Iraq and the nuclear issue. "The subject and focus of the meeting was Iraq," Crocker told reporters in a telephone briefing. He stressed that the meeting was not a bilateral US-Iran event, as Iraqi officials suggested the talks to follow up on a March conference of Iraq's neighbors and were present throughout the four-hour gathering. Israeli officials in Washington, who have been in close touch with the US about Iran, said they understood the meeting was held to deal with the need to stabilize Iraq. "We don't have a problem with America talking to Iran about Iraq as such," said one Israeli diplomat. The issue, he continued, would be the context of any conversation about the Iranian nuclear program. On that front, he said, it would be important that any American contacts were premised on Iran halting its enrichment activities. He said the US agreed that "the whole nuclear issue is still another channel" and that talks on that subject have to be based on suspension. In the conversation with Iran Monday, the US urged Teheran to end its arming, funding and training of militants. Qomi said he told the Americans that Teheran was ready to train and equip the Iraqi army and police to create "a new military and security structure." He did not elaborate nor would he say how US Ambassador Ryan Crocker responded. Crocker said that Iran proposed setting up a "trilateral security mechanism" that would comprise the US, Iraq and Iran, an idea he said would require study in Washington. The issue of Americans and Iranians help captive by both countries was not discussed, he said. In the course of the meeting, Ali al-Dabagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, told reporters that the session was proceeding cordially. "There are good intentions and understanding and commitment between the two countries," he said. The talks were held at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Green Zone office. Just before 10:30 a.m., Maliki greeted the two ambassadors, who shook hands, and led them to a conference room, where the envoys sat across the table from each other. Maliki then made a brief statement before leaving. He told both sides that Iraqis wanted a stable country free of foreign forces and regional interference. The country should not be turned into a base for terrorist groups, he said. The US-led forces in Iraq were only there to help build up the army and police and the country would not be used as a launching ground for a US attack on a neighbor, he said, a clear reference to Iran. Speaking in Teheran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the talks could lead to future meetings, but only if Washington admitted its Middle East policy has not been successful. Crocker, for his part, said progress would depend on Iran's actions "on the ground" in Iraq. He noted that these talks were the first of their kind, but came on the heels of brief contacts at two recent regional conferences convened by Iraq and its neighbors to stabilize the country. The moves come after the Bush administration had earlier ruled out talks with Iran, and indicate both how the State Department has adjusted its policy based on the violence in Iraq and how willing it is to move toward a policy of rapprochement. AP contributed to this report.