Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the first name of the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

U.S., Iran Plan Talks on Pacifying Iraq

By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 14, 2007

The White House confirmed yesterday that the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad is likely to meet in the next several weeks with Iranian officials about stabilizing Iraq, as the administration embraces a tactic outsiders have long recommended as essential to reducing sectarian violence in Iraq.

A White House spokesman said that Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker will meet with Iranian counterparts in Baghdad to prod Tehran to play a "productive role in Iraq." The confirmation came after the official Iranian news agency disclosed that the two sides had agreed to meet in Baghdad. U.S. officials said the meeting could occur as early as next week.

"The president authorized this channel because we must take every step possible to stabilize Iraq and reduce the risk to our troops, even as our military continue to act against hostile Iranian-backed activity in Iraq," said Gordon D. Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council.

Yesterday's announcement highlighted a new phase in the Bush administration's thinking about the advisability of talks with a country the president has called a member of an "axis of evil." A year ago, the White House authorized discussions about Iraq with Iran, but talks never got off the ground. As recently as December, when the Iraq Study Group recommended diplomatic dialogue with Iran and Syria, administration officials indicated little interest in such talks.

But with pressure growing from Congress to show results in halting the violence in Iraq, the administration appears to have concluded that it is worth trying to see whether Iran can use its influence in Iraq to help curb violence and spur political reconciliation. The administration is also shifting its stance toward Syria, another country with which it has had chilly relations -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met this month in Egypt with her Syrian counterpart.

Administration officials stressed that the talks with Iran would be limited to the security situation in Iraq and would not include negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, which are being handled by the United Nations and Europe. The United States broke diplomatic relations after U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in 1979; the administration has accused Tehran of helping foment violence in Iraq.

Former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, called yesterday's announcement an encouraging development. "We have a long and difficult list of problems with Iran. I would not expect immediate resolution of those, but you have to begin talks and they have to be sustained and they have to eventually get to the top levels of government," he said in an interview.

Hamilton said the Bush administration should not be rigid about the subjects for discussion. "I think the better situation is go in without preconditions but with flexibility about the agenda -- and with the expectation that it will not be a single meeting but a series of meetings," he said.

A prominent supporter of the Iraq war blasted the decision to hold talks with Iran, saying it will be seen in the Middle East as a sign of weakness. "I think it's foolish to believe that Iran sees its interests as compatible with American interests in Iraq," said Richard N. Perle, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "I don't think they are interested in stability. Iran has been contributing to instability. That is a deliberate policy, and I don't expect it to change. So it's not clear what we hope to achieve."

A statement from the official Iranian news agency suggested that the new talks came at the behest of Washington, though Johndroe would not say who initiated the dialogue.

The U.S. diplomatic effort is the result of a confluence of pressure from several sources. The Pentagon has long argued that an outright military victory is impossible in Iraq and that the key to U.S. withdrawal will be political reconciliation. The Iraqi government has viewed U.S. engagement with Iran and Syria as pivotal to political and military efforts. The Bush administration has faced resistance, however, from key Sunni governments in the region that are increasingly suspicious of Iran's role in Iraq.

The agreement to talk with Iran emerged after weeks of back-and-forth communication primarily through Iraqi and European officials. The two sides agreed to try mid-level talks in Baghdad during the May 3-4 talks in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on the future of Iraq, according to U.S., Iraqi and Iranian officials.

Such talks will remain at the "ambassador level," Vice President Cheney's spokeswoman affirmed yesterday in Cairo, where Cheney met with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak as part of a Middle East diplomatic tour.

[While Cheney was seeking support for the Baghdad government, Reuters reported, Egypt's official MENA news agency said that Mubarak pressed his guest to "move the Middle East peace process" between Israelis and Palestinians forward.]

Early on, after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the United States had constructive talks with lower-level Iranian diplomats about the formation of a new Afghan government, but the two sides have never followed up.

James Dobbins, a former U.S. diplomat involved in those discussions, said he is doubtful the new diplomatic initiative with Iran will bear much fruit since it involves officials without the stature to make policy shifts.

"The manner in which the administration has approached this suggests there is still a good deal of controversy within the administration about the degree to which they ought to engage the neighboring states," Dobbins said.

Paul R. Pillar, formerly a top Middle East and terrorism analyst at the CIA, said the United States and Iran have serious reasons to cooperate on Iraq. Uppermost for the United States "is getting any help they can in putting a lid on the violence in Iraq," he said, and Iran does not want "unending and escalating chaos on its western border."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company