US and Iran come face-to-face in Iraq

WASHINGTON — Washington and Tehran open their first substantial talks in 27 years in Baghdad today, with both countries setting modest goals and limiting discussions to ways to quell the chaos in Iraq.

US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is set to meet Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi in the highest-level official bilateral talks between the two sides since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The United States and Iran broke off diplomatic relations in 1980 after radical students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the talks would be held “in Baghdad, at an Iraqi government facility,” giving no further details for security reasons.

An Iraqi representative will join them at the start of the talks, which will then continue behind closed doors. There will be no official statement, but Crocker said there could be a press conference at the US embassy after the event.

The meeting follows a brief encounter between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, on May 4 at a conference on Iraq held at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

“Bad relations between the two countries does not serve Iraq, and Iraq has paid the price for the tension between the two countries,” said Ali Dabbagh, spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri  Maliki.

“We don’t want Iraq to be an arena for fighting between the two sides,” Dabbagh told reporters on Wednesday.

Washington accuses Tehran of fomenting violence by arming and training radical Shiite militias. Tehran in turn says that peace will not be restored in Iraq until US forces leave.

Washington also accuses Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, wants Tehran to freeze its uranium enrichment operations, and has not ruled out military strikes to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive. Iran says its atomic drive is peaceful and that it has every right to the full fuel cycle.

Iran’s nuclear programme however is not on the agenda for today’s talks.

“We have decided to do this meeting as part of the neighbours process,” said Casey. “This is the appropriate channel for that kind of issue. It’s not a forum for discussion about other events.”

Ahmad Tavakoli, an influential Iranian MP, told the Etemad Melli newspaper that Iranians can overcome their traditional hatred of the United States if it is in their interest.

“America is the Great Satan as the late Imam Khomeini had said,” Tavakoli told the Etemad Melli newspaper. “However one can also talk with the devil if it is beneficial and if the circumstances arise.”

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week that Tehran would merely use the Baghdad talks to remind Washington of its “occupiers’ duty” in Iraq.

Despite the strong symbolism, the meeting will likely yield limited results, said Anthony Cordesman, with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.

“Iran’s position on meeting with the US to talk about Iraq has been hostile beyond the usual standards of pre-conference posturing and leverage,” said Cordesman.

Cordesman said the recent arrest in Iran of at least three Iranian-American researchers accused of working to undermine the Islamic regime were “a grim warning that dialogue with this Iranian government may have very little near-term benefits.”

US forces are also holding five Iranians arrested on January 11 in the northern city of Erbil. Iran says the men are diplomats, but US officials suspect they are involved in supplying advanced roadside bombs to Iraqi insurgents to use against US forces. 

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