US rules out direct talks with Iran

By Guy Dinmore in Washington and Gareth Smyth in Tehran

Financial Times

Published: March 1, 2007

The Bush administration on Wednesday dismissed suggestions that it might engage dir­ectly with Iran or Syria at an international conference on Iraq to be held in Baghdad next week.

European allies and dom­estic critics have broadly welcomed the announcement by Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, that the US would take part in the conference alongside Iran and Syria. She also noted that such a diplomatic initiative had been recommended by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group last year.

Ms Rice’s statement at a Senate hearing on Tuesday prompted reports in the US media of a dramatic shift in policy. It was fuelled in part by the State Department, which pointedly declined to rule out the possibility of bilateral talks between Ms Rice and Iranian officials at a follow-up conference on Iraq to be held in April.

But on Wednesday the White House stepped in to “clarify” the situation and explicitly ruled out such a move.

“There will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings,” said Tony Snow, the White House spokesman. The US precondition re-mained unchanged, he said, that Iran first suspend its uranium enrichment programme as called for by the United Nations Security Council.

“We want to make sure those waters don’t get muddied,” he said.

Some analysts interpreted the mixed signals as evidence that the Bush administration was more interested in using the appearance of diplomacy to appease domestic critics and get its supplemental Iraq war budget through Congress, rather than adopt one of the key findings of the Iraq Study Group, which was to engage Iran and Syria directly. However, other analysts believed that Ms Rice was in fact trying to shift the US position in the direction of engagement with Iran, as has happened in recent weeks with North Korea, culminating with the nuc­lear freeze agreement reached in Beijing last month.

“It creates confusion, and when the Iranians are confused they are paralysed,” commented Ray Takeyh, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank who believes Ms Rice is anxious to engage Iran in talks.

In Tehran, Iran’s top security official, Ali Larijani, indicated that Iran would take part in the Baghdad conference.

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, has invited all Iraq’s neighbours as well as Egypt, the five permanent members of the Security Council, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Officials said it would take place on March 10. The US is expec­ted to send a senior official below the rank of minister.

“We hope the meeting will bring political backing for the national unity government in providing security and stability that will help national reconciliation in Iraq,” Mr Maliki’s office said.

The Maliki government is anxious that Iraq is not turned into a proxy battleground for a US-Iranian conflict. Mr Larijani said Teh­ran’s participation in the Bag­hdad conference would be designed to help the Iraqi government.

Iran has rejected accusations by the US that it is arming and equipping Shia militia in Iraq and providing explosives used against US forces. Asked if Tehran ran any risks in meeting the Americans, Mr Larijani replied: “One should not commit suicide because one is afraid of death.”

The US last held direct high-level talks with Iran in Geneva in May 2003.