Iran General NewsUS hopes for breakthrough talks with Iran

US hopes for breakthrough talks with Iran

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The Independent: The most important meeting between American and Iranian officials since George Bush became President office in 2001 could take place today. The Independent

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad and Anne Penketh

The most important meeting between American and Iranian officials since George Bush became President office in 2001 could take place today.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, are both attending a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for Iraq and its neighbours that will attempt to contain the Iraqi conflict as well as offer financial, political and technical support.

It is unlikely that the Bush administration will sanction full-scale negotiations with Iran which it blames for stoking violence in Iraq. In January, President Bush in effect ruled out dialogue with the Iranians and Syria despite it being recommended by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.

The Iranians have also expressed doubts. President Mahmoud Ahmadin-ejad has called for the US and other foreign forces to leave Iraq.

But yesterday there were indications that the Americans are looking for a face-saving way of restoring their relationship with Iran, almost three decades after the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran.

Nicholas Burns, the US Undersecretary of State, speaking in London, expressed the hope that Ms Rice would be able to meet her Iranian counterpart in Sharm el-Sheikh, saying that the Americans looked forward to a “good discussion” on reducing the sectarian violence in Iraq.

Officials have made it clear that there is no connection between the Egyptian talks focusing on Iraq, and the international attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear programme. But Mr Burns said: “Surely it is better for us to take the time now to see diplomacy play out, both on the nuclear issue, and on the issue of Iraq, and see if it’s possible to build a few bridges with our two countries.”

Ms Rice said: “I think I can handle any question that is asked of me. If we encounter each other and wander to other subjects I am prepared to address them at least in terms of American policy.”

Mr Burns was holding talks in London last night with European partners and Russia on the prospects of a negotiated solution to end Iran’s defiance of UN resolutions demanding an end to uranium enrichment.

A Western diplomat said talks last month between the European envoy, Javier Solana, and the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, had looked like a “good faith effort” to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

“We have the patience to see diplomacy play out,” said Mr Burns, although he added that all options – including a military strike – are under consideration.

All of Iraq’s neighbours – Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – have a deep interest in what happens to Iraq. They have factions and parties they favour, and finance inside the country. But while they have influence, none of the Sunni insurgent groups or Shia militias are pawns of the foreign neighbours.

Iraqis are highly pessimistic that the violence in their country will end in the foreseeable future. Some expressed bemusement after President Bush veto-ed a congressional bill imposing a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops with the warning that it was, “a prescription for chaos and confusion”.

Twelve weeks into an American plan to step up security in Baghdad the city is paralysed by the fear of death squads. The deployment of a further 4,000 US soldiers started yesterday.

A prime method of the plan is to seal off whole districts with high concrete walls to control the movement of people. Iraqis complain that the US is simply adapting the Israeli tactics of collective punishment for Palestinian villages and towns for use in Iraq.

The areas in Baghdad that are coming under the most intense pressure from US and the Iraqi governments are Adhamiyah in east Baghdad and the western suburbs of Amariyah and Ghazaliyah.

In Adhamiyah residents complained that on Monday Iraqi troops backed up by US forces took over the Naaman hospital, the only one used by Sunnis in the east of the city. Dr Ahmad Mahmoud was quoted as saying that patients were expelled and snipers posted on the roof of the hospital.

The isolating of cities and towns is highly unpopular and is likely to lead to greater support for insurgents even if it impedes their freedom of movement.

Outside Baghdad, US forces and Iraqi government forces have closed off Fallujah and Diwaniyah in southern Iraq, saying they are looking for suspects and weapons.

The walls cutting off neighbourhoods have the additional effect of strangling the economic life of districts because traders can no longer move freely.

* Iranian authorities have arrested the country’s former nuclear negotiator on an unspecified security charge. Iran’s state-run news agency, citing an “unofficial informed source”, said Hossein Mousavian, an ally of President Ahmadinejad’s predecessor and rival Mohammad Khatami, was held in Tehran, on Monday.

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