Iran Agrees to Talk With U.S. About Iraq

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 17, 2006

TEHRAN, March 16 -- A senior Iranian official said Thursday that Iran would enter into direct talks with the United States about Iraq, opening the way for the two countries to hold their first face-to-face discussion about Iran's western neighbor since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"In the days to come we are going to designate people who are going to carry out these talks," Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in an interview. "The important thing for us is an established government in Iraq and that security is restored."

The White House welcomed the Iranian participation, which was solicited by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, and urged by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite leader in Iraq with close ties to Tehran.

Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, said Khalilzad had been authorized to talk to the Iranians about their interference in Iraq "and make that concern known, recognizing that in the end of the day, it is not a negotiation." Hadley added that Iranian activity in Iraq "is giving comfort and, in some case, equipment to terrorists that are killing Iraqis and killing coalition forces. And that is what we have made very clear is unacceptable."

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, emphasized that the talks would be limited to the situation in Iraq and would not touch on Iran's controversial nuclear program. "The nuclear issue is being discussed at the United Nations among diplomats of the Security Council," McClellan told reporters.

Some officials expressed skepticism about Larijani's remarks, saying they appeared similar to past comments by him and other Iranian officials. "We've taken note of the statements that were made this morning by Mr. Larijani," said Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns. "I would just say they've made similar statements for many months now."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year authorized Khalilzad to hold direct talks with Iran about Iraq, but the Iranians wanted to include other issues in the discussions, a senior State Department official said.

In the interview, Larijani appeared to expressly accept talks on the terms offered by the Americans. After saying Iran had dismissed Khalilzad's earlier public overture, Larijani noted that "he has repeated this again."

"Since Mr. Hakim, one of the influential individuals in Iraq, has asked us to talk to the Americans on the future of Iraq, therefore we accept to talk to them about Iraq."

Asked how far the talks might range, Larijani repeated that Washington had offered "only on Iraq." Only then did he appear to signal more ambitious possibilities for the opening.

Couching the overture in terms of the antipathy that has frozen U.S.-Iran relations for more than a quarter-century, Larijani said: "If the Americans stop troublemaking in the region and if they examine their previous conduct and behavior, a lot of things may happen."

But Larijani, who is regarded as extremely close to the cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also suggested that the countries should work past their mutual mistrust. Washington froze out Iran after student militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and then held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

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