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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 May 2007, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
Brief encounters at Sharm el-Sheikh
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Condoleezza Rice
For the US this summit was about winning support for Iraq
So those landmark US-Iranian talks in full. Condoleezza Rice asks: "How are you foreign minister?" and Manouchehr Mottaki replies: "Fine, thank you."

This after some prompting from others over the lunch table for the US secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister to break the ice.

Hardly the kind of exchanges that lead to world peace. 

The two were due to sit down opposite each other at dinner later that day - were it not for the red dress worn by a female Russian violinist entertaining the foreign dignitaries.

Mr Mottaki seemed to think her attire was inappropriate and so - we are told - left early. 

Pleasantly surprised

So why the missed opportunity? Well, there was no doubting that the Americans had wanted to talk.

This international conference on Iraq's future had given Ms Rice the ideal opportunity to do that - casting aside years of the US policy of isolation in the process.

Iraq wanted to see the US talk to its neighbour. So did other neighbouring Arab states to relieve the growing tensions.

Manouchehr Mottaki
The US contacts with Iran's Mottaki were hardly ground-breaking

But in the end it seemed that Iran had taken the decision to avoid the contact.

Who in Tehran had made that decision? It is hard to say.

There have been some suggestions that Mr Mottaki was not the right interlocutor.

Iranian sentiments towards the US, though, have not been helped by the detention of five Iranian "diplomats" in Iraq.

The US was prepared to talk - but only on its terms and focused on Iraq.

By concentrating on the phantom talks with Iran, there is, however, a danger of ignoring a major development in relations between Washington and Damascus.

Walid Muallem
Rice's talks with Syria's Muallem were not hostile

Condoleezza Rice had her first face-to-face talks with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

Given that the US has labelled Syria a state sponsor of terror, this in itself was significant.

The tone of their discussions did not appear to be hostile either.

"I didn't lecture him and he didn't lecture me," Ms Rice told reporters.

She raised US concerns about the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

But US military commanders note that in the past month there has been a slight improvement on that front.

US officials were also pleasantly surprised by the speech given by Mr Muallem at the conference.

While he talked in vague terms of the need for the US to leave Iraq, there was no demand for a timetable for withdrawal or for an end to the "occupation".

As one senior US official told me, that puts Syria slightly to the right of the Democratic Party.

Limited success

A number of European countries have long believed that you can "flip" or "peel" Syria away from Iran.

US officials may still not be convinced but the meeting may have given them reason to pause and think again.

IRAQ CONFERENCE KEY POINTS
Attended by Iraq's neighbours, permanent members of Security Council, EU and G8
International compact signed, aimed at achieving political and economic stability in five years
Iraq won pledges of US $30bn debt relief
US secretary of state talks with Syrian foreign minister
US and Iranian officials met at ambassador level

However, back to Washington and Tehran. They seem to be as far apart as ever.

The atmosphere at Sharm el-Sheikh was not helped by the Iranian foreign minister's speech at the conference.

He said that the US "occupation" of Iraq was the root cause of  the violence there.

The flurry of excitement when it emerged that senior US officials had met their Iranian counterparts on the margins does not seem to amount to much either.

That contact lasted all of three minutes as they were walking past each other.

And in the final analysis this conference was much more important to the US than simply sitting down with Iran.

This was always about winning international support for Iraq.

And on that front, the administration of George W Bush seems to have had some limited and rare success. 




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Iran's foreign minister speaks outside the conference





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