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.
"We have got to solve the issues in accordance to today's situation," Larijani said, apparently alluding to the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they deposed governments that Iran regarded as enemies. "The facts on the ground have changed a lot."
"We can create stability and security in the region. But not with the sort of rhetoric and language Mr. Bolton is using. What is needed is sensible people who can think of a long-term plan."
Larijani was referring to John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who said last month that Iran faced "tangible and painful consequences" if it continued with its nuclear activities, which Washington says are aimed at building atomic weapons. Iran in turn threatened to inflict "harm and pain" on the United States if U.N. sanctions were imposed.
In addition, the Bush administration this month announced a $75 million initiative to advance democracy in Iran by expanding broadcasting into the country, funding nongovernmental organizations and promoting cultural exchanges.
And on Thursday, the White House issued a new national security strategy with tough words for Iran and a reaffirmation of Bush's doctrine of preemptive war against hostile states with nuclear weapons. The strategy said the United States faced "no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."
In a speech Thursday to the U.S. Institute of Peace outlining the new document, Hadley denied that the discussion of preemptive war was meant particularly for Iran. It is "completely wrong to say that our preservation of the doctrine of preemption is to preserve it with Iran as the principal case," Hadley said.
Hadley said the White House would "look at any kind of conversation" with Iran beyond the issue of Iraq but was leery of bilateral discussions for fear they would crack the consensus Washington has helped build with Europe against Iran's nuclear program. He said the solidarity of the international community seemed to finally be having an effect on Iran.
"We are, I think, beginning to get indications that the Iranians are finally beginning to listen," he said. "And there is beginning to be a debate within the leadership and, I would hope, a debate between the leadership and their people about whether the course they are on is the right course for the good of their country."
Karim Sadjadpour, who follows Iran for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, said that "right now you could argue that U.S.-Iran relations are at almost their worst since the 1980s. I think both sides recognize the fact that it's incredibly important that they talk this time. I think it's very positive. This is one area where there is common ground. It would be a good start to talk about Iraq and then move on to the great issues of contention."
Analysts noted that Washington and Tehran have an obvious common interest in Iraq's long-term stability. Iran, governed by Shiite Muslim clerics, has consistently called for democracy that would empower Iraq's own Shiite majority, long oppressed by the country's Sunni Arab minority.
"This has been our ultimate desire," Larijani said. "If a real democracy succeeds in Iraq so that all groups can participate in it, that government can be a real, established government. We are against Americans creating an imposed democracy in Iraq."
At the same time, Iran has reason to worry that the recent rise in sectarian fighting in Iraq could erupt into civil war. Tehran is itself facing unrest in border areas where non-Persian minorities overlap into Iraq -- ethnic Kurds in the northwest and Arabs in the southwest.
"I think Iran's and the United States' short-term interests in Iraq actually coincide," said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Iranian and U.S. diplomats have coordinated on regional conflicts in recent years. Tehran sent representatives to Germany for a conference that the United States convened to plan for Afghanistan's transition following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Iranian diplomats continued to meet with U.S. officials in Geneva and Paris in the run-up to the Iraq war, albeit secretly after Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil" he described in his January 2002 State of the Union address.
The governments exchanged information on hundreds of Arab fighters who fled Afghanistan into Iran, including a handful of senior al-Qaeda officials whom Iran offered to exchange for Iranian guerrillas in U.S. custody in Iraq. The guerrillas had tried to overthrow the Iranian government.
Bush eventually rejected the offer, a decision that infuriated the Iranians and marred the secret talks.
The breaking point on the American side came in early May 2003, when Khalilzad flew from Baghdad to Geneva bearing intelligence that a terrorist attack might be imminent somewhere in the region. According to three participants at the meeting, Khalilzad warned that if a bombing could be traced to al-Qaeda operatives in Iran, the talks would end.
Several days later, on May 12, 2003, a bombing in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killed 35 people, including nine Americans, and ended the U.S.-Iran dialogue.
Khalilzad publicly called for new talks after being named U.S. envoy to Baghdad. A native of Afghanistan, he is fluent in Farsi, the language of Iran, and is well regarded by many Iranian officials.
"He understands the mind-set here, and he's ambitious himself, so that helps," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a Tehran University political scientist who has taught at Columbia University. "I believe it's a good time and a good choice. Both countries this time need each other. The cold peace can't continue. Now they're coming together, not out of love or passion, but out of basic biological necessity."
But the International Crisis Group's Sadjadpour said Iranian officials may not understand how much damage was done to the prospect of renewed relations by Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "In the context of domestic political realities in the U.S., it's almost impossible to reach out to an Iranian regime that has a president who says Israel should be wiped off the map and the Holocaust didn't happen," Sadjadpour said.
Gary G. Sick, a Columbia University professor who served on the National Security Council staff during the hostage crisis, said it was significant that Iran chose to accept Khalilzad's offer so publicly. Larijani volunteered the news to reporters and issued a statement through an official news agency.
The gesture may be intended to mollify erstwhile allies, such as Russia, that have been pressing Iran to show some flexibility as the U.N. Security Council mulls action on the nuclear file. "A quick first reaction is that this is part of Iran's zigzag strategy -- sometimes helpful and moderate, other times hard-line and obdurate," Sick said in an e-mail.
Larijani said the nuclear portfolio should be returned to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"For example in Iraq, Iran has much influence," he said. "Is it because of a nuclear bomb? It's not. If you look, you'll see its current leaders -- Sunni, Shiite, Kurds -- were our guests here in Iran while the Americans were supplying weapons to Saddam Hussein."
Staff writers Dafna Linzer, Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.