US Secretary of State Willing to Talk with Iran’s FM

The United States looks likely to meet with some of its staunchest Mideast foes – Syria and Iran – at a summit of leaders that begins in Egypt Thursday, in an effort to ease regional tensions. According to AP, a high-level Syrian meeting seemed set for as early as Thursday, but the possibility of a more dramatic face-to-face US meeting with Iran was still up in the air.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was willing to talk with Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki after years of accusations and name-calling between the nations.

“If we encounter each other, then I’m certainly planning to be polite, to see what that encounter brings,” Rice said of a potential discussion with Mottaki.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed interest, too. He said Wednesday that Tehran would welcome talks with the US on the sidelines of the conference, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

“The Iranian nation welcomes honest dialogue” with the US, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying during a speech in the southern Iranian city of Sirjan. He also warned that it would be a mistake to think the US could pressure Iran into rolling back its nuclear program with dialogue.

On Syria, Rice could meet as early as Thursday with her Syrian counterpart, moderate Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem, said an Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Rice was noncommittal but said she wouldn’t rule out such a meeting, nor would her aides. “We’ll see who’s there and what conversations take place,” she said.

The US has put both regional heavyweight Iran and the less influential Syria in diplomatic deep freeze in recent years, and until recently Rice dismissed the notion of talking to them.

But the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, US allies and lawmakers of both parties have urged President Bush to reconsider in the hope that Iran and Syria can be persuaded to use their influence inside Iraq.

Iraq and many Arab countries have been particularly eager, even desperate, for such talks — saying they are only the way to stabilize Iraq.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said, “Whatever exchanges that would — or might — take place, I’m sure it would help.”

Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose own ties to Iran have sometimes made his US backers nervous, told Rice during a Wednesday meeting that Iraq suffers from being caught in the middle of competing international interests, according to his advisers.

Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Baban said al-Maliki told Rice, “A rapprochement must take place between you and the nations of the region to solve the issue of Iraq, particularly Syria and Iran.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Baban quoted Rice as replying, “That’s true. If a meeting should take place by accident, we won’t refuse.”

The two-day conference in this Red Sea resort town is expected to bring together officials from Iraq, the US, Iran, Russia, China, Europe and Arab nations.

Although the subject is the economic and political stability of chaotic Iraq, the specter of talks with Syria and especially Iran was seen as the most crucial possibility.

If Rice meets with Moallem, it would be the first such high-level talks since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denies it had anything to do with the killing, but US and European officials have since shunned the Damascus government.

No US officials would outline specific plans for sessions with Syria or Iran, but any contact would probably not be as casual as Rice suggested. All sides have been gauging signals from the others, and even a brief encounter would probably come only after careful orchestration.

That is especially true for any contact with Iran, with whom the United States has not had relations since 1979.

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