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Iran/Syria talks

Dec 23, 2003
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US softens on 'axis of evil' as it plans talks with Iran and Syria
Thursday, March 01, 2007

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

Iran has agreed to attend this month's planned regional security conference on Iraq that will see its representatives sit down with US officials - a potentially groundbreaking departure, given the glacial state of relations between Tehran and Washington.

US participation in the talks was confirmed by Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, to Congress earlier this week. Yesterday officials from the Iraqi government, which is organising the meeting, said that Iran too would be attending, although the immediate response from Tehran was more cautious, that it would attend "if it was expedient".

A first session at the level of ambassadors is expected within the next 10 days. If all goes well, a full-scale ministerial conference will take place in April, probably in Istanbul. There, Ms Rice will sit down with her opposite numbers from Iran and Syria - with whom Washington has also refused to deal, accusing Damascus of supporting terrorism and meddling in Iraq.
The very fact the US has agreed to take part marks an abrupt shift in policy by Washington after months of refusing to have any truck with Tehran - despite strong urgings to that effect by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) and many Middle East policy experts.

But officials here play down any expectations of major breakthroughs between the two rivals. US representatives for instance will not discuss Tehran's nuclear programme, the other big bone of contention. Washington remains firm in insisting Iran must first suspend uranium enrichment before any contacts can take place, and is keeping up pressure for tougher United Nations sanctions on Tehran to secure that.

Despite Mr Bush's public commitment to a "diplomatic" solution to the nuclear crisis, he refuses to rule out air strikes against Iranian installations. Washington meanwhile accuses Iran of supplying sophisticated bombs to Iraqi Shia insurgents, used to kill US troops.

Finally, administration officials stress these will be anything but direct bilateral talks. Not only will Iraq's other neighbours and regional powers such as Egypt take part, along with Iran, but the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council as well.

As for Iran, its guarded formal response reflects a wariness bred by what happened the last time it engaged in serious talks with Washington in late 2001. Only a few weeks after those apparently constructive discussions on Afghanistan, Mr Bush used his January 2002 State of the Union address to label Iran a member of the "axis of evil" along with North Korea and Iraq.

But the ground is shifting on both sides. By all accounts, the financial and banking quarantine imposed by Washington is being felt in Tehran. Despite the relentlessly defiant rhetoric from President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, he appears to be under pressure from parts of the regime to soften his stance.

The US for its part seems to have woken up to the virtues of diplomacy. "Better late than never" was the reaction of Leon Panetta, a senior Democratic member of the ISG, whose recommendations were mostly brushed aside by the White House. In the past few weeks Ms Rice has thrown herself into a new round of Middle East diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, albeit with scant result. Then the White House agreed to a nuclear deal with North Korea not very different from the 1994 agreement reached by President Bill Clinton but criticised by the Bush administration.




Jul 6, 2003
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It seems to take this White House a long time to listen to others' advice...


Aug 22, 2002
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wonder what finally changed the administration's mind.


Oct 19, 2003
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Syria wasn't listed in the Axis of Evil. Also, Reagan talked to the Soviets, and he called them "an Evil Empire." Bush has been speaking with the Koreans for years. The US dealt with the Iranians regarding Afghanistan. This is not the reversal it is being made out to be.

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