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What to expect after Iran-U.S. talks?

Posted By Ahmed Abdullah 

The first face-to-face, senior-level talks between the United States and Iran in more than two decades were never going to be reconciliatory. But the fact that the four hours of discussions on bringing stability to war-torn Iraq took place at all in Baghdad on Monday indicate how much each of the two arch foes, and indeed the leaders of the two countries, need such talks, according to an article on the Christian Science Monitor. 

"The talks would not be taking place unless Bush backed them and ... Khamenei backed them," says Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq at the University of Michigan. 

For President Bush, joining these talks signals a new determination to test all diplomatic avenues for stabilizing Iraq. Beyond this, the meeting signals the rise of foreign-policy pragmatists within the U.S. administration, analysts say. "[President Bush] is to the point where he will try anything," Cole said, but "it (the meeting) also points to the increased influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice" and the administration's new Iraq team: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Crocker, who recently arrived from Pakistan.

Despite Washington’s insistence that the talks didn’t presage a retreat from a three-decade-old U.S. policy to isolate the Islamic Republic, Iranian officials hailed the U.S.-Iran meeting as recognition that Iran is a major player in the Middle East. "Khamenei wants new relations with the world, he wants to pursue the dialogue he opened with the West, but he wants this dialogue to produce a new recognition of Iran as a power that must be reckoned with in the region," says Hussain Hafeid, a professor of international relations at Baghdad University. "Sitting down one-on-one with the U.S.," he adds, "is an opportunity to put relations on an equal footing."

Iranian officials, led by their ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, stressed this view on Monday by proposing a trilateral mechanism of the U.S., Iraq, and Iran for addressing security issues, a proposal that if accepted would lock Washington into a dialogue with Tehran. 

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who led the American delegation, did not reject the idea immediately, but said that the United States would have to consider any such proposals. Noting that he reiterated to the Iranians Washington’s allegations that Iran is supplying Shia fighters in Iraq with arms and explosives; a charge Tehran strongly rejects, Cocker said: "We will wait to see what happens next on the ground." 

However, Crocker's characterization of the talks as "positive" indicates that they are an avenue the Bush administration wishes to pursue.

No subsequent meeting was scheduled after Monday’s session, which took place in the offices of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. Iraqi officials indicated that they would extend an invitation to the U.S. and Iran to attend another meeting in the near future, and Crocker said Washington "will entertain it when we receive it."

The fact that there could be further meetings between American and Iranian officials underscores a tough task that both countries will be facing: silencing those who oppose any move that could improve U.S.-Iranian relations.

American critics say the talks could pave the way for Iran to extend its influence in the Middle East even further. For now, the U.S.-Iran dialogue suggests a new pragmatism. But more immediately, Washington is concerned about Iran's growing influence in the region, Cole says.

"The U.S.-Iran talks are deeply unpopular among some elements in Washington and Tehran," he added. "The Cheney camp is reported to be opposed to them, and the arrests [in Iran] of Iranian-American academics in recent days may well be an attempt by some in the camp of [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to sabotage these talks."

Steven Clemons, publisher of the Washington Note blog and director of the American strategy program at the New American Foundation in Washington, agrees, saying that his recent discussions with some administration officials indicate that Cheney "fears that the president is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously."

Cheney believes that Bush is committing a "disastrous mistake" by talking to Iran, Clemons says. 

In Iran, opponents of the talks believe that Tehran has extended its power and influence in the region over recent years by standing up to the United States, not talking to it. Moreover, Iranian officials have already made clear that the core problem in Iraq is the continued presence of U.S. forces there. 

However, by emphasizing in Monday’s talks that the U.S. hasn’t done enough to train and quip Iraqi security forces, the Iranians seemed to be suggesting that Tehran doesn’t want the U.S. to leave just yet, says Hussain Hafeid of Baghdad University.

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