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Rice breaks ice with Syria, what about Iran?

Posted By Ahmed Abdullah

A month after President Bush slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, for traveling to Damascus in early April to meet President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem on the sidelines of an international conference held in Egypt to end four years of violence in war-torn Iraq. 

The ice-breaking meeting, the first between the U.S. and Syria in decades, followed rare praise from the U.S. army that Damascus reduced "the flow of foreign fighters" into Iraq. The high-profile diplomatic encounter indicated that international efforts to stabilize Iraq by engaging its neighbors are finally working. 

U.S. officials stressed that only Iraq’s security - rather than broader relations - were discussed in a "professional and businesslike" meeting between Rice and Moualem, marking a shift in President Bush’s once resolute opposition to high-level contacts with Syria or Iran. 

The Iraq summit also gave British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett the chance for her first meeting with her Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki since last month's row over Iran’s arrest of 15 British sailors and marines. 

"There is every reason why there has to be a constructive relationship," Beckett said after the talks. 

Beckett’s comments comply with the EU’s approach towards Iran that reflects a continued EU wish to find a compromise over Tehran’s nuclear program and avoid confrontation with a major oil supplier and trade partner. 

The EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana recently urged the United States to open direct negotiations with Tehran, stressing that Iranian officials are ready for unconditional talks. 

The Iraq conference offered a great opportunity for such high-level talks. But these hopes were dashed as the only meeting that took place was between ambassadors, although Rice and Mottaki had a brief exchange over lunch yesterday. 

Stressing that Baghdad is keen to bring Rice and Mottaki together, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zibari said: “it was the ambassadors and members of the [U.S. and Iranian] delegations that met.” 

U.S. officials attending the Iraq conference said the Americans feel that the right man for the first such meeting in nearly 30 years was Ali Larijani, Iran's national security adviser, not Mottaki. 

Another excuse Rice might use to avoid meeting Mottaki is his strong criticism of Washington’s policy in Iraq. 

Speaking at the Sharm al-Sheikh conference, Mottaki blamed the U.S. presence in the war-ravaged country for sectarian violence. "The continuation of, and increase in, terrorist acts in Iraq originates from the flawed approaches adopted by the foreign troops. Thus, in our view, the continuation of occupation lies at the origin of the crisis," he said. 

"The United States must accept the responsibilities arising from the occupation of Iraq, and should not finger point or put the blame on others.” 

Rice’s reluctance to meet Mottaki, whether to discuss Iraq’s security or attempt to resolve the nuclear standoff, sends confusing messages to the Iranians, analysts say. 

After all, it was Rice herself who urged Tehran to send an envoy to attend the Iraq conference. “It would be a missed opportunity for Iran” if it didn't show up at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, the U.S. Secretary of State said late last month.

 

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