Iran will only hold direct talks with the United States on Iraq if Washington announces plans to pull its troops out, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Saturday.
Mottaki was responding to this week’s Iraq Study Group report, which recommended Washington should directly engage with Iran and Syria to try to stabilize Iraq.
President Bush has said he will not talk to Iran unless it suspends its nuclear program.
On the question of direct talks, “the first and most essential step ... is the United States announce they have decided to withdraw from Iraq,” Mottaki told reporters at a security conference in Bahrain.
“Iran is ready to help the administration to withdraw its troops from Iraq,” he said, but his country did not “see such political will yet in the United States.”
Washington has said it will keeps its troops in Iraq as long as the Iraqi government wants.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last month his country’s forces would be able to assume security command by June 2007 -- which would allow the United States to start withdrawing troops.
Offer greeted with skepticism
U.S. and Iraqi officials at the conference were skeptical about any Iranian help for U.S. troop withdrawal.
“I don’t know how Iran can help the United States withdraw from Iraq peacefully. They should define that ... What about the Iraqis? Nobody asked them,” said Saadoun Dulaimi, adviser to Maliki.
Washington blames Iran and Syria for stirring up conflict in Iraq nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
“The biggest help Iran can make is to stop what they’re doing in Iraq right now,” a senior U.S. military official, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.
“The Iranians are good chess players ... and they are going to find a way to prolong this effort and help discredit the United States ... to gain more influence and possibly work on their nuclear program,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested Tehran would demand some payback in return for any help on Iraq, probably over its nuclear program, which the West fears could include nuclear weapons. Iran says it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.
Asked if Iran would ask for concessions if it helped the United States withdraw, Mottaki said: “When they announce they have decided to withdraw from Iraq, then we will explain how the region can help the Americans to withdraw.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said Syria or Iran would demand payback for any help they offer the United States.
“No country will come and offer you good services free of charge. What’s the price?” he said.