The United States agreed yesterday to join high-level talks with Iran and Syria on the future of Iraq, an abrupt shift in policy that opens the door to diplomatic dealings the White House had shunned in recent months despite mounting criticism.
The move was announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in testimony on Capitol Hill, after Iraq said it had invited neighboring states, the United States and other nations to a pair of regional conferences.
"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings," Rice told the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve the relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region."
The first meeting, at the ambassadorial level, will be held next month. Then Rice will sit down at the table with the foreign ministers from Damascus and Tehran at a second meeting in April elsewhere in the region, possibly in Istanbul.
The Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel whose recommendations were largely ignored by the administration, had recommended such a regional meeting in its December report. Rice and other administration officials emphasized, however, that these conferences would be led and organized by the Iraqi government and not, as the study group suggested, by the United States. Still, Democrats seized on the announcement as a long-overdue change in direction by the administration.
"Better late than never," said Leon E. Panetta, a onetime White House chief of staff who served on the panel, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton. Panetta said that the announcement is "an important step in trying to bring stability to Iraq" and that, combined with the recent nuclear agreement with North Korea and renewed efforts by Rice to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, "the administration is finally recognizing that part of its arsenal is strong diplomacy."
In a statement, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said: "The administration is right to reverse itself and engage Iran and Syria on Iraq. Right now they're a big part of the problem, but they have an interest in becoming part of the solution to prevent chaos in Iraq."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long advocated a regional conference, though originally it was meant to include only Iraq's neighbors. The administration decided in recent weeks to attend the conference, but in an effort to avoid the spotlight it ensured that it will be joined at the table in March by other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, U.S. officials said. The foreign ministers' meeting in April will be further expanded to include representatives of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.
It was decided "relatively recently" to include the permanent Security Council members, and the G-8 was invited "as of last night," a senior administration official said. Rice's announcement appeared intended to assuage congressional concerns about the administration's Iraq policy, which have threatened to derail passage of a nearly $100 billion supplemental spending request for Iraq.
Administration officials noted that then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell attended a regional conference on Iraq in 2004, where at one point he found himself seated next to the Iranian foreign minister and made idle chitchat. But that meeting took place in a different context, before Iran had started uranium enrichment and before Syria was implicated in the killing of a Lebanese political figure -- two reasons the administration has frequently cited for limited diplomatic engagement with Tehran and Damascus.
"The only reason to talk to us would be to extract a price, and that's not diplomacy, that's extortion," Rice told Der Spiegel, a German magazine, when asked last month about the international conference promoted by the Iraq Study Group.
Since the start of the year, in fact, Rice has rhetorically divided the region between "mainstream" actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and "extremists" such as Iran and Syria. She suggested that rather than draw out Iran and Syria through diplomacy, the United States would seek to isolate them unless they changed their behavior on their own.
"We do have a regional approach," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January. "It is to work with those governments that share our view of where the Middle East should be going." She argued at the time that "the problem here is not a lack of engagement with Syrians but a lack of action by Syria. . . . If the government in Tehran wants to help stabilize the region -- as it now claims -- then it should end its support for violent extremists."
Yesterday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeatedly declined to rule out the possibility of bilateral discussions between Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts, except to note that the dispute over Iran's nuclear program is already being handled on a separate diplomatic track. "I'm not going to exclude any particular interaction at this point . . . on issues that are important to us, but the focus will be on Iraq," he said.
"Security is clearly an important issue for the Iraqis. It's going to be at the top of the agenda," McCormack added. Roadside bombs "are certainly at the top of our list," he said. "This isn't, however, our meeting." U.S. officials have charged that Iranian agents are suspected of supplying the devices -- aimed at armored vehicles -- to militias in Iraq.
Retired Vice Adm. John M. McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday that while Iran's contributing weapons to Iraqi militias "raises the cost to the United States" of its fighting in Iraq, he did not see "any direct linkage from Iran dictating events inside Iraq."