Milestone U.S.-Iran Talks Make Minimal Progress

After the most formal, direct talks between the United States and Iran in decades, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker today said the two sides found "broad agreement" in their declared policies and principles about the war in Iraq. That is, both sides say they want a stable, democratic Iraq. But stated policies and principles don't add up to much amid conflict that is becoming more and more a proxy war between the United States and Iraq's most powerful neighbor. Crocker, who gave a 15-minute news conference after the four hours of talks here today, said the United States told Tehran to stop supporting Iraqi militias with weapons, training and money. He said the Iranians denied the allegations.

The Iranians proposed setting up a trilateral security group consisting of the United States, Iran and Iraq to work on Iraqi security issues. Crocker says he told them the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss further meetings. Instead, the purpose was "to lay out concrete concerns, as we did, and our expectation that action would be taken on them." And, for good measure, he said he told the Iranians that before Washington would have another meeting, "we're going to wait and see, not what is said next, but what happens next on the ground, whether we start to see some indications of a change in Iranian behavior."

So much for agreement. The Associated Press reported later that the Iranian envoy, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, claimed another meeting would be held within a month. He said Iran offered to help train Iraqi security forces. Crocker did note that the Iranians had criticized the U.S. effort to train the Iraqi troops, which Crocker rebuffed by pointing out the "billions" of dollars already spent on the U.S. training effort.

Were these talks as unprecedented as some reports are saying? That depends on just how much you qualify "unprecedented". U.S. officials were with Iranians in the Iraq "neighbors" meeting in Egypt a few weeks ago. Officials from Washington and Tehran also sat at the same table at a Baghdad conference back in March. Some commentators get around that by calling this the first "public" and "bilateral" meeting between the two sides in about 25 years. But the meeting was hosted, moderated and participated in by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his security advisor, which would make it trilateral. Anyway, there were low expectations among Iraqis for any significant progress and, in a day that saw a car-bombing that killed more than 20 people near a historic mosque in downtown Baghdad, the talks played second or third in the local television news.

It's probably inevitable that public meetings like this will start slowly, with the hope that they could eventually foster U.S.-Iranian relations further down the road. But the dispute over Iran's nuclear program makes the whole situation that much more complicated--especially as the United States has been leading the charge to punish Iran for Tehran's ongoing non-compliance with the monitoring requirements of the United Nation's nuclear watchdog agency. Another problem for jumpstarting talks like this: The U.S. military "surge," in Iraq, that slow influx of additional troops upon which so much of the American end game is riding, also gives the diplomacy a preliminary feel. If there's big progress in pacifying Baghdad once all the additional troops are on the ground (not something that's happened yet), the Bush administration might feel it doesn't need to ask favors of Iran and can keep a hard line on the nukes issue. If the troop escalation doesn't work, the Iranians may feel they have the upper hand. For Iraqis who feel more and more like their country is a card in a bloody game between the other powers, it looks like Iran wants the surge to fail--and is helping nudge it that way--to increase Iranian leverage. In parallel, many Iraqis also say that, in addition to oil and regional dominance, one of America's reasons for staying in Iraq is to scare Iran next door.

In his comments to open the meeting, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki almost pleaded for Iraq's needs to not get lost in all the geopolitics. "Our participation will not be incidental and we are not mediators between two adversaries," he said. "We are an essential side which seeks . . . . results that would push Iraq toward security and stability." In the end, according to Crocker, the meeting did not stray from the subject of Iraq into anything else. Not even the issue of seven Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq was raised, he said. As for what they did for four hours, Crocker said, "As you surely know, among diplomats you don't need a lot of substance to take up a lot of time."