US may embrace diplomacy critics long demanded

By opening the door to a high-level dialogue with Iran and Syria, the US appears to be embracing a diplomatic strategy that its critics have long said was essential to stabilise Iraq.The move follows more aggressive US diplomacy with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programmes and a new US push on Israeli-Palestinian peace after years of being accused of relative neglect.

“I think that it’s an acknowledgement of reality. It’s in effect a move towards a foreign policy less based on ideal outcomes and more based on realistic possibility,” said James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation, a former top US diplomat.

“It’s long been the view of most area experts that one isn’t going to be able to stabilise Iraq unless one secures a modicum of support from the neighbouring states,” Dobbins added. “They simply have too much access, too much influence and too much at stake themselves in Iraq’s future to be ignored.”

In a surprise move, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday used testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee to announce that the United States would attend two Iraqi-convened conferences on how to stabilise the country.

The first meeting will bring together working-level officials in Baghdad on March 10 and the second, involving ministers, may be held as early as April. A US official said this meeting could take place in Istanbul.

Syria’s official news agency  said it will attend the March meeting while Iran is considering the invitation.

While the State Department and White House denied they had changed policy, the decision marked a shift from months during which the Bush administration had been cool to the idea of more direct, high-level engagement with Iran and Syria.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran but the two have had contacts in group settings. It has diplomatic relations with Syria but withdrew the US ambassador in 2005 and has resisted senior-level contacts.

Congressional pressure

Some analysts suggested the change was prompted by pressure from Democrats, who now control Congress and the administration’s purse strings, as well as from Saudi Arabia, which has taken a much more active role in regional diplomacy.

“It’s not an accident that [she] made the announcement at an appropriations committee hearing. The administration needs Congress on its side and Congress is very, very sceptical of the administration’s strategy,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the CSIS think tank in Washington.

“You have these two things coming together —  the Hill pressure and the Saudi pressure and the administration sensed that it doesn’t cost you anything to be in a multilateral meeting. It won’t go anywhere, so why not?” he said.

The United States insisted that before it would engage in talks Iran must first suspend uranium enrichment, which can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants and atomic bombs.

Iran says its nuclear programme is for power generation and has refused to suspend uranium enrichment despite the passage of one UN Security Council sanctions resolution in December and the threat of another.

Rice, in recent months, has argued that Iran was bound to demand concessions on the nuclear issue if the United States were to engage it over Iraq, a trade-off she had rejected.

Analysts said that the administration had been conflicted about whether, and how, to deal with the Iranians for years.

In a sign this tension may not have been resolved, the State Department carefully refused to rule out the possibility of bilateral talks with the Iranians at the Iraq conferences while the White House flatly excluded it.

“The administration is under tremendous pressure … to at least show that it is trying to do more on the diplomatic front to bring about a better outcome in Iraq,” said Derek Chollet, another CSIS analyst. “What remains to be seen is how seriously they are going to take these talks.”

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