U.S.-Iran talks will give Tehran a chance for new relations with Iraq, U.S. ambassador says

Associated Press • May 17, 2007 at 11:12 AM

BAGHDAD - Talks between the United States and Iran this month will be an opportunity for Tehran to enter a "whole new era" in relations with Iraq, but first it has to stop aiding Iraqi insurgent groups, the U.S. envoy leading the discussions said Thursday.

Both Iranian and American officials said Thursday that the talks, beginning May 28 in Baghdad, will be limited to the security situation in Baghdad and will not delve into other issues between the two countries.

"It is not about U.S.-Iranian relations. It's about how direct contact between us can help the situation inside Iraq," said the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who will lead the talks.

Iran and the U.S. have not had public bilateral meetings on a specific issue since Washington broke off relations with Tehran over the 1979 hostage crisis. Previous encounters have been at multilateral gatherings. The two countries held talks under U.N. auspices between 2001 and 2003 regarding Afghanistan.

The United States has accused Shiite-ruled Iran of helping train and arm Shiite militias and some Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. It has specifically accused Iran of helping insurgents obtain explosively formed penetrators, sophisticated bombs that are capable of piercing armored vehicles.

The U.S. has "a problem with Iranian behavior in Iraq that is counter to what we want to see, what the Iraqi government and people want to see and counter to their own stated interest," Crocker said.

Iran denies arming or financing insurgents in Iraq.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Thursday blamed the presence of U.S. troops for instability in Iraq.

"Terrorists say that ‘We are doing this because of the foreign forces,' and the foreign forces (are) saying that ‘We are here because of the terrorist groups,'" Mottaki told reporters in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he was attending a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

"We do believe that a correct approach to Iraq should look to both points, or both areas of the difficulty," Mottaki said.

Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish-dominated government has pressured the U.S. and Iran, the two nations with the most influence here, to work together in the interest of stabilizing the country.

Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad a mandate to open talks with the Iranians, but only on Iraq. The Iranians rejected that offer, saying the U.S. was trying to use the meeting for propaganda.

In March, U.S. and Iranian diplomats held brief talks on the sidelines of a Baghdad gathering. At a follow-up conference this month in Egypt, Crocker had a casual chat with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi.

Mottaki said an unidentified senior diplomat would represent Iran at the May 28 meeting, which would set the agenda for more detailed discussions.

The U.S. State Department confirmed the talks would be held May 28. Crocker played down expectations, saying he did not expect a rapid breakthrough. But he also insisted the meeting would give Iran, which fought a brutal eight-year war with Iraq that began in 1980, a rare opportunity. "There is an opportunity here for them, I think, to move into a whole new era in a relationship with a stable, secure, democratic Iraq that threatens none of its neighbors, including Iran," Crocker said. "But to get there, they need to start doing some more constructive things than they have." The talks are going ahead despite the ongoing deadlock over Iran's nuclear program. Vice President Dick Cheney warned Iran last week during a visit to the Gulf that the U.S. and its allies would prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons and dominating the region. Against that backdrop, Mottaki said any broader improvement in relations would take time. "The file of the problems between the United States and Iran in bilateral relations in very thick," Mottaki said.

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