Sunday, October 03, 2004

A glimmer of hope for U.S.-Iran rift?

A glimmer of hope for U.S.-Iran rift?: "A glimmer of hope for U.S.-Iran rift?
Steven R. Weisman, New York Times
October 3, 2004 IRAN1003

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Bush administration's new openness to having Secretary of State Colin Powell attend a conference along with an envoy from Iran next month is spreading hope among European and Arab officials that such a meeting may reduce tensions in the region.

State Department officials insist that Powell's newly expressed willingness to be in the same room with an Iranian representative at a conference on the future of Iraq does not portend a softening in other U.S. grievances, including the demand that Iran abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.

"We don't see this as an opening for a new dialogue," said a senior State Department official. "It just shows we will talk to Iran on certain issues like Iraq when it is in our interest to do so."

But administration officials say there has been a debate for months over how to deal with the growing problem of Iran's nuclear program as Britain, France and Germany have sought to engage the Iranians over it to avoid a confrontation with the United States.

While hard-liners around President Bush press for a tough stance, hoping to open a debate about whether to support "regime change" after the U.S. election, some in the State Department are said to be more sympathetic to the idea of diplomatic engagement, as urged by many Arab and European allies.

Except for a brief talk between a U.S. envoy in Baghdad and some visiting Iranian officials earlier this year, the United States has not had diplomatic contact with the Iranian government since May 2003. Talks were cut off then after a series of bombings in Saudi Arabia that were linked to groups based in Iran.

An opening for a new engagement occurred in recent weeks, however. It was initiated by Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, say officials from the United States, Europe and the Arab world.

Allawi has appealed to Iran and Syria, which also has troubled relations with the United States, to do more to stop cross-border help for insurgents in Iraq. While in the United States late last month, Allawi said that this issue could best be dealt with in a conference of Iraq's neighbors in the region, plus other leading countries.

The United States accepted the idea, and State Department officials say they now expect it to occur in late November in Cairo. Although the purpose of the conference is not to achieve an American-Iranian reconciliation, some organizers say they hope it may coax the process along.

'Ratcheting down'

Powell, in an interview last week with Al-Jazeera, said the conference would focus on bringing stability to Iraq. "If the Iranians are in the meeting and wish to talk in a responsible manner about this problem, I will be in the room, too," he said.

An Iraqi official said that Iran's role in supporting insurgents in Iraq was alarming but that the conference could lead to a "ratcheting down" of tensions within Iraq and between the United States and Iran.

One reason European and Arab officials say they are hopeful, despite the fact that there are no signs of willingness by the United States to do more than attend the Cairo conference, is that there have been signs of improvement in U.S. relations with Syria.

Powell, after meeting in New York last month with Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara of Syria, said there had been some positive signs of Syrian willingness to cooperate on a number of fronts, including stopping cross-border infiltration into Iraq and cracking down on terrorist groups based in Syria."

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