The United States and Iran will meet in Baghdad in the next few weeks to discuss Tehran taking a “productive role” in Iraq’s security, the White House said on Sunday.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chester Crocker will represent the United States, which has accused Iran of backing Shiite militia in Iraq and seeking an atomic bomb. Tehran denies both charges.
Iran, which has not had diplomatic relations with the United States in more than 25 years, first announced the talks on Sunday and White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirmed the development from Air Force One en route to Virginia with President George W. Bush.
“You could expect a meeting in the next few weeks with Ambassador Crocker and Iranians,” Johndroe said. “The purpose is to try to make sure that the Iranians play a productive role in Iraq.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari welcomed the talks by saying, “This is a positive sign ... The U.S. is a major player and so is Iran, and there will be a room for some substantial discussions for the stability of Iraq.”
U.S. officials have often said they would meet with Iranian counterparts but that talks would have to be limited to Iraq. There was no indication the upcoming discussions would stray from that position.
No nuclear talks
“This is not about the United States and Iran. This is about Iraq,” Johndroe said, emphasizing that the nuclear issues are separate from discussions about Iraq.
Earlier this month Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice exchanged pleasantries at a lunch on the sidelines of an Egyptian conference on efforts to stabilize Iraq but held no substantive discussions.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Iran’s decision to hold talks with its arch enemy followed weeks of intense lobbying by Baghdad, which had sought to persuade Iran to engage in such talks.
“With the aim of easing the pain of the Iraqi people, supporting the Iraqi government and strengthening security in Iraq ... Iran will talk with the American side in Baghdad,” Iran’s official IRNA news service quoted Hosseini as saying.
The recent conference in Egypt was a follow-up to a meeting of senior officials in Baghdad in March, where Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged neighbors to do more to end bloodshed that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Many experts say Tehran could play a big role in stabilizing Iraq and this should be a major area of U.S.-Iranian convergence.
Iran has denied backing the insurgency in Iraq and accuses Washington of igniting tensions between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Analysts say Washington and Tehran are both concerned about worsening violence in Iraq, pushing them to agree to meet.
Both sides acknowledge meeting one-on-one in recent years for discussions specific to Afghanistan, another neighbor of Iran where the United States went to war.
Washington has been leading diplomatic efforts to isolate Iran because of its nuclear program. Iran has rejected repeated U.N. demands to halt uranium enrichment, which is used to make fuel for atomic power stations but also has military uses.
Iran, a major oil exporter, says it needs its atomic program to satisfy its booming electricity demand.