U.S. to Tell Iran How It Could Help Steady Iraq

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

The United States intends to lay out a comprehensive account of Iran's growing military role in Iraq -- including the array of arms provided to both Shiite and Sunni militias -- during critical talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats scheduled for tomorrow in Baghdad, according to senior U.S. officials.

Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, will also outline steps Iran could take to help stabilize war-ravaged Iraq, both politically and militarily. Any subsequent meeting will depend on the quality of the dialogue and Iran's cooperation in the coming weeks, the sources added.

"If the meeting is productive and there's a promise that these meetings will be worthwhile, we'll agree to a second meeting," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy.

However, the Bush administration enters the dialogue with limited leverage, analysts said.

"Iran has every advantage in these talks -- in geography, demography and time -- and they know it. Iran has better relations with every political party, militia and warlord in the Shiite and Kurdish communities than we do. It has the best intelligence apparatus in Iraq. And it has the advantage of a religious relationship with the majority population that is unique," said Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution who previously served at the National Security Council and the CIA.

U.S. and Iraqi forces uncovered a new cache of bomb-making equipment from Iran and large amounts of Iranian cash in a Wednesday raid on Baghdad's Sadr City, according to U.S. military officials. The Bush administration will lay out details tomorrow about Iranian war material used by Iraqi extremists against U.S. troops, a pattern that has increased since late last year, U.S. officials said. Washington is particularly concerned about explosively formed projectiles, which can pierce armor and have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq.

A senior Iranian official said yesterday that the agenda of Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, will be to discuss "practical" ways to help the Iraqi government. But expectations are low on both sides. The talks, expected to last at least two hours, are seen as a test of intent, U.S. and Iranian officials say.

"The sides can be hopeful about following up negotiations if the U.S. has a realistic view, . . . admits its wrong policies in Iraq, decides to change them and respects its responsibilities," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said at a news conference yesterday in Tehran.

The talks come at a time of growing U.S. tension with Iran. Iran has not complied with two U.N. resolutions demanding an end to its uranium enrichment, a process used for nuclear energy that can be subverted to build nuclear weapons.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana will meet with Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani in Madrid on May 31, when Solana is expected to reaffirm a U.S. offer to talk with Iran about the Iranian nuclear program. But if Tehran continues to defy the United Nations, then the United States and other members of the Security Council will push for a third resolution to impose new sanctions, U.S. and European officials said.

State Department officials said that international unity against Iran's nuclear program gives Washington a strong position.

"In the past six or seven months, we have detained two groups of Iranians operating in Iraq, positioned two carrier groups in the Gulf, and seen two Security Council sanctions resolutions passed against Iran. We have also engineered a series of financial sanctions by private banks and investment houses and made Iran into an international pariah," Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns said in interview. "They're the ones at a strategic disadvantage," he said.

Analysts counter that Iran, like Iraq's militias, just has to wait out the U.S. departure. "What we want -- an end to violence -- is not necessarily what they want," Riedel said. "They want us to leave battered, bruised and gun-shy and with no plan to ever use Iraq as a base for regime change in Iran."

The Bush administration has been divided about how far to go with Iran, U.S. officials acknowledge. The State Department has actively urged an attempt at engagement to help salvage the U.S. intervention in Iraq, while Vice President Cheney's office has set a bar that makes a successful outcome difficult, U.S. officials say.

On the eve of the talks, Iran's intelligence ministry announced it had uncovered spy networks in Iran run by "the occupying forces" in Iraq. "The Intelligence Ministry succeeded in finding, recognizing and confronting some spy networks of infiltrating elements from the Iraqi occupiers in west, southwest and central Iran," the ministry said, according to IRNA, the Iranian official news agency.

Iranian media have written about the splits among Iran's top politicians about how to deal with the United States. Some hard-liners oppose formal talks, leading some analysts to suggest that recent detentions of Iranian-American nationals in Tehran and the spy network allegations may represent an attempt to derail diplomacy. Crocker is not expected to raise the issue of the five Americans detained in Iran because the Monday talks are intended to focus on Iraq.

The U.S.-Iran talks in Baghdad will be the first formal and public bilateral meeting between the two nations since diplomatic relations were severed after the 1979 U.S. Embassy seizure. Prior to this meeting, U.S. and Iranian diplomats have participated in two meetings of Iraq's neighbors over the past two months.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company