US-Iran talks on Iraq to resume amid heightened tensions

State Department says said Teheran hasn't taken any steps to help bring about a stable Iraq.

iraq violence 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
iraq violence 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The United States said ambassador-level talks with Iran in Baghdad on Tuesday will focus solely on the situation in Iraq despite rising tensions over American-Iranians detained by Teheran and Iranians held in US custody in Iraq. "This is an opportunity for direct engagement on issues solely related to Iraq," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington on Monday. "We are going to raise the need for Iran to match its actions with its words in seeking strategic stability in Iraq." McCormack said Iran has not taken any steps to help bring about a stable Iraq, a goal he said Iran professes to share with the United States. "We'll see, if, as a result of these engagements, they will change their behavior." The first round of Iran-US talks, on May 28 in Baghdad, broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and US Embassy takeover in Teheran. Iran had said this second round would happen last month, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials delayed because Iran had not scaled back what Washington alleges is a concerted effort to arm militants and harm US troops in Iraq. Tuesday's talks will be held at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry just outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will lead the US side. His counterpart will be Hasan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's envoy to Iraq. An Iraqi delegation led by a top official will attend the talks, according to Labeed Abawi, a senior official at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. He declined to identify the official. "What we, as Iraqis, hope to achieve is to build confidence between the two sides," Abawi told The Associated Press. "There are facts on the ground, and they need to be dealt with." The detention of four American-Iranians in Iran has deepened tensions between Washington and Teheran, whose relations were already strained over Iran's controversial nuclear program and its support for radical militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and by US military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. But McCormack said Iraq was the only issue on the agenda. He said he expected Iran to bring up the case of five Iranians held in US custody in Iraq and accused of supporting insurgents. Crocker would not raise US concerns about the four Iranian-Americans held for espionage, he said. Washington has called for their release and says the charges are false. "No, this meeting is about Iraq," McCormack said when asked specifically about the case of one of the four, Haleh Esfandiari of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "We've taken lots of opportunities via the Swiss to raise the case of Haleh Esfandiari as well as other American citizens in Iran. That is being handled in a separate channel." Switzerland looks after US interests in Iran. Iran has called for the release of the five Iranians, whom the United States has said are the operations chief and members of Iran's elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants. Iran says they are diplomats who were legally in Iraq. But Abawi, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry official, said Baghdad did not want the detentions to dominate the talks "because this will distract from the primary aim and that's helping Iraq." "We will ask the two nations to help us overcome our problems using all possible means," he told Iraq's independent Asharqiya television.