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U.S.: Administration Seeks To Engage Iran, Syria On Iraq

By Andrew Tully

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For months, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has resisted the idea of holding talks with Iran and Syria, which he accuses of mischief in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.

But this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, urged Iran and Syria to attend next week's talks on stabilizing Iraq. The meetings will be held on May 3 and 4 in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Rice said in an interview published on April 22 in Britain's "Financial Times" newspaper that Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki would miss what she called an "opportunity" if he couldn't attend next week's meeting.

Conference Preparations

The next day, Crocker, speaking in Baghdad, echoed Rice, stressing the importance of getting all Iraq's neighbors to discuss how to stabilize the country.

"What happens in Iraq doesn't occur in a vacuum," he said. "There is a region; there are neighbors; there is an international community. And over the next couple of weeks, I think we all are going to be very busy looking at both the regional and the international aspects of Iraq's situation with the conferences that will convene in Sharm el-Sheikh at the beginning of May."

Iraq has invited its neighbors to the meetings, as well as the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G-8 industrialized nations. Iran has yet to accept the invitation, leading both Rice and Crocker to urge it, as well as Syria, to attend.

Until now, Washington has said it has nothing more to say to Syria about how it believes Damascus should behave. And it says it won't talk to Iran until it suspends uranium enrichment.

Some observers view the statements by Rice and Crocker as a shift in U.S. policy, and perhaps an opportunity for U.S. diplomats to discreetly probe Iranian and Syrian counterparts about eventually holding direct talks.

Pro And Con

James Aborezk, who represented the U.S. state of South Dakota in the Senate from 1973 to 1979 and was the first American of Arab descent to serve in the U.S. Congress, has long been a critic of Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq.

Aborezk said he's surprised the administration is urging Iran and Syria to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, given that Bush has been, to use his word, "adamant" about not talking to representatives of the two countries.

"My guess is that Bush is desperate to get out of Iraq, saving his own ego, which is why he's staying in there so long anyhow," Aborezk said. "And he's looking for any way that anyone can help him get out."

Steven Welsh studies international security issues at the Center for Defense Information, a private policy research center in Washington. He says there are two important reasons that he doesn't believe there's been a shift in Washington's approach to Iran and Syria, particularly Iran.

"Over time, they've taken pains to distinguish between the Iraq issue and the issue of Iran developing nuclear weapons, for one thing," Welsh said. "The second point is [the meeting at Sharm el Sheikh is] a multilateral framework with Iran so that it doesn't simply get reduced to a U.S.-Iranian matter, but rather have the focus be squarely on building peace in Iraq and building Iraqi sovereignty and stable nationhood for Iraq."

Welsh says that if Iran were to be a subject, and not merely a participant, in the Sharm el-Sheikh talks, it should be scrutinized for any contributions it may have made to the sectarian violence in Iraq.

"Everyone thinks that engagement of all relevant parties is important, but I think that there's also the question of Iran being held to account to try to understand exactly what the Iranians are doing with respect to Iraq," Welsh said. "And I think it's important that that be a concern of the international community and not just a U.S.-versus-Iran matter."

Welsh recalls that in December, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, one of the leaders of the Iraq Study Group of leading U.S. foreign policy advisers, urged the Bush administration to try to engage all of Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, in an effort to come up with a local solution to stabilizing Iraq.

And Welsh notes that Baker remarked there was a good chance that Iran or Syria might not joint the talks in good faith -- or might not join them at all. But at least, Baker said, the United States could say it tried to engage them.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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