US/Iran talks on Iraq

Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, say the government would agree to talks with what it called the “Great Satan” to help resolve issues on Iraq and establish an independent government.

The White House said the US would talk about Iraq but insisted the talks would have a “very narrow mandate” and would not take up concerns over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

The talks were proposed by Iraqi Shiite leader, Abdel Aziz Hakim, on Wednesday.

His comments echoed those of the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who last week signalled that he was prepared to talk with Iran on matters of mutual concern.

“We agree to negotiate with the Americans,” Mr Larijani told reporters after a closed-door speech to parliament.

“Iran accepts the demand of Hakim to resolve the Iraqi problems and issues with the goal of creating an independent government.”

President George W. Bush’s administration has stepped up its criticism in recent days, accusing Iran of meddling in Iraq.

Mr Bush has also tried to separate the talks from US plans to haul Iran before the United Nations Security Council.

“The nuclear issue is being discussed at the United Nations among diplomats of the Security Council. That’s a separate issue,” he said.

Asked whether negotiations on Iraq would be a step forward in US-Iran relations, he replied: “Our views and concerns regarding the regime in Iran are very clear, and we have a number of concerns about the regime. The other issues are separate from this issue.”

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said it would be fruitless to try to negotiate with Tehran on its nuclear program in view of the country’s track record on the issue.

“The problem here is not the absence of discussions between the United States and Iran, the problem is what Iran is doing,” Mr Burns told reporters.

“We see an Iranian government, particularly since (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad came to office, that seems bound and determined to create a nuclear weapons capability.”

“We have made the calculation (…) that it is better to try to isolate the Iranian government.”

Observers were skeptical they could make any headway on Iraq as long as Iran’s nuclear program remained at issue.

“There is no way [that] talks between the US and Iran over Iraq will get anywhere if they are not tied in with negotiations over the nuclear question, because Iran is using its ability to cause “harm and pain” to the US in Iraq as leverage in that matter,” said Joost Hiltermann, director of the Brussels-based International Crisis group’s Middle East offices.

First direct talks in decades

US embassy officials have until now insisted that any contact with Teheran would have to come from Washington.

If the proposed negotiations go ahead, it would be their first direct talks since Washington broke ties with Tehran in April 1980.

Ties were cut off after the Islamic revolution that ousted the US-backed shah and a hostage crisis involving US nationals in 1979.

The arch rivals have long resisted a dialogue on Iraq.

But Iran has strong ties to the major Shiite parties who dominate Baghdad’s political landscape.

Despite their differences, the increasing violence and disorder in Iraq will be a concern to both sides.

The last time the sides sat at the same table was in 2001 in a room with seven other countries, for discussions over Afghanistan.

Over the years, efforts to revive ties between Teheran and Washington have proven elusive amid numerous false starts, most prominently during Iran’s reformist era under then president Mohammed Khatami.

The relationship sank to new lows in 2002 when Mr Bush said Iran was part of an axis of evil along with North Korea and Iraq.

President Ahmadinejad has fuelled Washington’s anger with his fierce anti-Western rhetoric and defence of Iran’s nuclear program.

In turn, US leaders have accused the Islamic republic of exporting terror and having ambitions to develop an atomic bomb.

The White House branded Teheran its number one security threat in its National Security Strategy document, obtained by AFP on Thursday.

The UN Security Council is due to take up the matter of Iran’s nuclear program on Friday, paving the way for possible sanctions and even greater tensions between the Islamic republic and the world’s only super power.

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