The Guardian: The Bush administration gave up one of the central tenets of its Middle East strategy yesterday, reversing its much criticised effort to isolate Iran and Syria by inviting both states to negotiations on stabilising Iraq. The Guardian
· Initiative ends isolation of Tehran and Damascus
· Plan seen as attempt to limit criticism of war
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
The Bush administration gave up one of the central tenets of its Middle East strategy yesterday, reversing its much criticised effort to isolate Iran and Syria by inviting both states to negotiations on stabilising Iraq.
The initiative, announced last night by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in testimony to the Senate appropriations committee will see America and Britain join Iraq and its neighbours in talks to try to rein in the country’s sectarian violence.
The proposed meeting was widely seen as an attempt to neutralise criticism of George Bush’s strategy on the war – most notably his refusal to open talks with Tehran and Damascus.
The Bush administration has been under growing pressure for such a move since last December and accept the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group for direct talks with Iran and Syria.
Now an approximation of such talks could take place within weeks.
Ms Rice yesterday said representatives from Iran and Syria would be invited to a “neighbours meeting” to discuss efforts to stabilise Iraq. “I am pleased to announce that we are also supporting the Iraqis in a new diplomatic offensive: to build greater support, both within the region and beyond, for peace and prosperity in Iraq,” she said. “We hope these governments seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region.”
In Baghdad, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshiar Zebari, said the meeting would include Iraq; its six neighbours; the five permanent members of the UN security council – the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France; members of the Arab League; and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
The first meetings between ambassadors could be held within the next fortnight, with more senior officials, such as foreign ministers, to gather in April.
But administration officials cautioned that the diplomatic opening would be limited to questions of Iraqi security. Topics such as Iran’s banned nuclear programme or Syrian involvement in Lebanon would remain off-limits.
“This is one where the agenda is being set up by the government of Iraq,” the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, told reporters. He also indicated there would be no bilateral contact between the US and Iran.
The prospect of US and Iranian diplomats sharing a negotiating table in Baghdad represents an apparent U-turn on Mr Bush’s strategy towards the Middle East. It follows increasing criticism even from those foreign policy experts who support the Bush administration policies on Iraq, such as James Baker and Henry Kissinger, who had been calling on the administration to end its diplomatic isolation of Iran. The outgoing ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, also favoured direct talks with Iran.
The limited diplomatic engagement follows several weeks of political manoeuvring between the White House and Congress, and a rhetorical offensive from Washington against Syria and Iran.
In recent weeks, US officials have accused Iranian agents of supplying militants inside Iraq with materials for roadside bombs that have taken a heavy toll on US forces, and of funnelling support to Hizbullah militants in Lebanon. They have also accused Syria of allowing insurgents and arms to cross its borders into Iraq.
The director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, yesterday told the Senate armed services committee that the flow of arms to Iraqi insurgents probably had the support of senior Iranian officials. “We know there are Iranian weapons manufactured in Iran. We know that Quds Forces [of Iran”> are bringing them,” he said. “Is there a direct link from Quds Forces delivering weapons, to the most senior leadership in Iran?” he said. “I would phrase it as ‘probable’.”
Mr Bush also has had to confront an increasingly assertive Congress, under the control of a Democratic majority which opposes his plans to send an additional 21,000 troops into the war zone.