WASHINGTON – The United States agreed Tuesday to join high-level talks with Iran and Syria on the future of Iraq, an abrupt shift in policy that opens the door to diplomatic dealings the White House had shunned in recent months despite mounting criticism.
The move was announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in testimony on Capitol Hill, after Iraq said it had invited neighboring states, the United States and other nations to a pair of regional conferences.
“I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings,” Rice told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve the relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region.”
The first meeting, at the ambassadorial level, will be held next month. Then Rice herself will sit down at the table with the foreign ministers from Damascus and Tehran at a second meeting in April elsewhere in the region, possibly Istanbul.
The Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel whose recommendations were largely ignored by the administration, had recommended such a regional meeting in its December report. Rice and other administration officials emphasized, however, that these conferences would be led and organized by the Iraqi government, not the United States as suggested by the study group. Still, Democrats seized on the announcement as a long overdue change in direction by the administration.
“Better late than never,” said Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff who served on the panel headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. He said the announcement was “an important step in trying to bring stability to Iraq” and that combined with the recent nuclear agreement with North Korea and renewed efforts by Rice to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, “the administration is finally recognizing that part of its arsenal is strong diplomacy.”
“The administration is right to reverse itself and engage Iran and Syria on Iraq,” said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “Right now, they’re a big part of the problem, but they have an interest in becoming part of the solution to prevent chaos in Iraq.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long advocated a regional conference, though originally it was only meant to include Iraq’s neighbors. The administration decided in recent weeks to attend the conference, but in an effort to avoid the spotlight, it ensured that it will be joined at the table in March by other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, U.S. officials said. The foreign minister’s meeting in April will be further expanded to include representatives of the “Group of Eight” industrialized countries.
Rice’s announcement appeared intended to assuage congressional concerns about the administration’s Iraq policy, which have threatened to derail passage of a nearly $100 billion supplemental spending request for Iraq.
Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeatedly declined to rule out the possibility of bilateral discussions between Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts, except to note that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is already being handled on a separate diplomatic track. “I’m not going to exclude any particular interaction at this point … on issues that are important to us, but the focus will be on Iraq,” he said.
“Security is clearly an important issue for the Iraqis. It’s going to be at the top of the agenda,” McCormack added. Roadside bombs “are certainly at the top of our list. This isn’t, however, our meeting.” U.S. officials have charged that Iranian agents are suspected of supplying the devices – aimed at armored vehicles – to insurgents in Iraq.