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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 11:59 GMT
US switch on Iran adds 'missing link'
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Senate hearing
Condoleezza Rice announcing change of policy at Senate hearing

The decision by the United States to attend a conference in Baghdad with Iran and Syria adds what many observers have felt was a "missing link" in US policy in the region.

The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that as well as the official level Baghdad meeting, foreign ministers from the same countries would also meet "as early as the first half of April".

She did not say where this meeting would be held but the talk is of Istanbul.

Nor did she say whether she would be meeting the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki one-on-one.

The result, though, is that, having initially and forcefully rejected the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group that the US should engage with Syria and Iran, the Bush administration is now doing just that.

These will be the highest-level contacts between the US and Iran for two years.

And they might be a little more fruitful than the one in 2004 between the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi. They were put side by side at a dinner in Egypt and confined their talk to innocuous chitchat.


Two questions arise immediately: why is the US doing this and what impact will it have on the issue of Iran's nuclear activities?

Part of the answer to the first came from Dr Rice in her Senate statement. Basically she said that the administration had changed its mind.

She acknowledged both the Iraq Study Group by name and pressure from the Congress. "I've had very fruitful discussions," she said.

The result is that, having initially and forcefully rejected the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group that the US should engage with Syria and Iran, the Bush administration is now doing just that.

But another reason was outlined by White House officials who explained the recent American strategy of building up its pressure points on Iran. These, in Washington's view, were needed because at the end of last year, the US was in a very weak position.

Since then, it has got its diplomatic ducks in a row and now feels that it can afford to make this gesture from a stronger position, not as a supplicant. Washington will be demanding that Iran be more helpful to the Iraqi government.

The US pressure on Iran has grown in several ways: it has planned and begun to implement the surge of troops in Baghdad; it has ratcheted up the campaign by producing evidence against Iran linking it to explosive devices used against US forces; it has moved a second aircraft carrier into the Gulf.

It is taking advantage of a ruling by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has defied a deadline from the Security Council to suspend uranium enrichment and has began discussions to tighten sanctions on Iran.

It has also developed its aim of boosting the Iraqi government itself by urging it to put its own house in order.

For example, a new law on getting foreign oil companies to work in Iraq and on the sharing of revenue within Iraq has been agreed in framework.

So the US can present this change in policy over Iran as something that will bolster the Iraqi government further.

Iran on the other hand might regard the move as a sign of US weakness and another stage in the growth of its own influence in Iraq and the region.

There is another element at work as well - the influence of the secretary of state herself. At the very moment when Vice-President Dick Cheney was making threatening noises against Iran on a world tour, this initiative is announced.


As for nuclear issue, that remains unresolved and could yet derail any attempt to forge some kind of US-Iran rapprochement over Iraq.

Whatever talks take place between the US and Iran, the planned meetings are not expected to deal with the nuclear problem.

The administration hopes that the drip-drip of pressure on Iran will eventually produce either a change of policy on uranium enrichment, though that is unlikely, or a change of government.

At the same time, the threat of military action remains "on the table" as Mr Cheney put it.

In the new twin track American diplomacy towards Iran, tension is being reduced on one track but remains on the other.


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