Talking At Iran

As Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari was giving his opening address at Baghdad's eagerly-awaited international conference Saturday, two mortars landed in quick succession near the ministry compound just outside the Green Zone, sending journalists picnicking on a scrap of lawn outside fleeing for cover. Inside, a cheery Zebari recalled later, "this did not interrupt our discussions at all. I commented, 'this was bad targeting.' And then I kept speaking." Indeed the mortars missed, exploding harmlessly, though the second was closer than the first, never a good sign. "The mortar didn't shake us," he said. It shook us though; inside the ministry annex, a couple journalists dived for cover again when a door was slammed closed by the wind. "We assured the countries present this is normal, in fact we expected more," Zebari said. And he insisted the incident had no bearing on the failure of the conference to reach agreement on whether a second, higher-level conference would be held in Baghdad, as the Iraqis want.

The Baghdad Neighbors Conference, bringing together all of Iraq's neighboring countries, plus the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, as well as Egypt and Bahrain, has attracted enormous attention, mainly because it's the first forum in which the United States, Iran and Syria would be sitting at the same table to discuss Iraq. It's also the biggest international conference held in Iraq since 1991. And while there have been nine previous neighbors' conferences, this one comes in the midst of a spiraling war of words between the United States and Iran, especially, over that country's role in Iraq. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government depends on the United States for security, but has particularly warm relations with Iran, a Shia country, and it has found itself uncomfortably in the middle. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, in his opening speech, referred to this obliquely by saying "Iraq strictly refuses to be an arena for settling such [international] disputes." And Zebari, in his mortar-decorated remarks, was more explicit. "Iraq does not want to be a land where other countries settle their accounts with the USA at the expense of Iraq," according to an account of his closed-door address published by the BBC's Arabic service.

Zebari had lobbied intensely for the conference since last summer, visiting all the capitals involved and insisting on holding it in Baghdad. Only when he persuaded the Permanent Five to come did he manage to win agreement from the others; due to the risks of violence, most of the neighboring countries no longer even maintain embassies in Baghdad. The Iraqis have publicly said they hoped to see the United States and Iran talking constructively, if only about the subject of Iraqi security. "If this can help solve some other issues, so be it," said deputy prime minister Barham Salih a few days ago. "That will give us a better standing. Iraq instead of being a problem, it will become a facilitator of solutions. That would be something we would be happy with."

The conference didn't solve any problems, and participants couldn't even reach agreement on when and where the next one would be held. But they did agree there should be another one, at the level of foreign ministers, and possibly including the G-8 as well. In the meantime the neighbors and Iraq would form working committees to study three main issues: security and border concerns, refugees and displaced people, and import of badly-needed fuel to Iraq. Perhaps most significant, judging from comments from all the participants, was the fact that U.S. diplomats talked directly with delegates from Syria and Iran in what Zebari described as "constructive and lively discussions." Iran has indicated it wants direct talks with the United States over nuclear issues, which the U.S. has refused, considering it an issue for the Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency; the U.S. has proposed direct talks with Iran over Iraqi-only issues, which Iran had refused. The two countries haven't had diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. In recent weeks, U.S. diplomats and military officials have complained about Iraq's involvement in providing arms and advanced bomb-making technology, particularly Highly Explosive Projectiles which can pierce most forms of armor. Iraqi officials, however, say they believe Iran has stopped such intervention, and that it has also helped quiet down Shia death squads. "There was direct exchange and discussions and consultations between the American and the Iranian delegations but no other agendas or issues were raised other than Iraq's stability and security," Zebari said, at a press conference afterward.

The U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who headed the American delegation, called the meeting "a good first step." Khalilzad said he raised the issue of Iranian interference in Iraq, but added that the issue of a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was not addressed. After Khalilzad left, the Iranian delegate, deputy foreign minister Abbas Arakchi, gave his own press conference, and was more frank -- or perhaps less diplomatic -- than his American counterpart. The Iranian official gave the impression that the two sides did more talking at one another than to one another. Arakchi said he did raise the timetable issue, in his opening remarks. "The presence of foreign forces in Iraq cannot help the security of Iraq in the long term," he said. "We are facing a vicious cycle in Iraq. The presence of foreign forces in Iraq justifies violence in that country. And the violence is used to justify the presence of foreign forces in that country. To preserve Iraq's stability, we need to have a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces." And he responded harshly to the American criticisms of Iran's interference. "The Americans are unfortunately suffering from intelligence failure. They have made so many mistakes and wrongdoings in Iraq because of the false information and intelligence they had at the beginning. We hope they don't repeat the previous mistakes. The security of Iraq is our security too. Violence in Iraq is good for no country in the region."

That is one principle everyone agreed on, and one that has been brought home forcefully to many of the neighbors. Iraq's growing refugee crisis has sent 3.9 million of its people abroad, especially to Syria and Jordan, whose financial interests have always been closely tied to Iraq. Turkey worries about the growing independence of Iraq's Kurdish north, and its effect on its own restive Kurds. And Iran wants a safe environment for its pilgrims to travel to Shia holy places in Iraq. U.S. allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia are worried about sectarian violence directed against their fellow Sunnis in Iraq, and everyone is worried about the enormous incubator of terrorism Iraq has become. "They have stated today that they support Iraq, that Iraq's security is important for them," Khalilzad said. "These are all good sentiments. Statements are good, but not sufficient. Next step is to see if they're translated into action."

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