Iran and the United States are ending decades of hostile silence by finally agreeing to hold bilateral talks. Washington insists that the discussions will be limited to ways Tehran can help ease the sectarian violence in neighboring Iraq, and that Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program will not be raised. But some analysts believe the subject of Iraq could be a pretext for getting the two sides together for serious talks on all the issues that divide the two rivals.
WASHINGTON, March 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, announced on March 16 to the Iranian parliament the agreement for bilateral talks.
Afterward, Larijani told reporters that Iran is ready to help the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush take a hard look at its behavior, beginning with an examination of the internal conflict in Iraq.
"We will [appoint] some people to hold these discussions on Iraq so that they can help put Iraq's future government in a better position to deal with problems," Larijani said.
But several Bush administration officials quickly cautioned reporters not to make too much of the announcement.
"We will see when and if those talks [with Iran] take place, but that discretion has been there for [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay] Khalilzad for some time, and I'm sure that we'll talk about this exercise," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on March 16 in Sydney, Australia. "This isn't a negotiation of some kind. We found it useful to exchange information and to talk. And if we do, it will be about Iraq."
Just Opening The Door?
But Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy-research center in Washington, said he is convinced that the topic of Iraq's sectarian conflict is merely a pretext for broader talks between the two governments.
Serfaty said that, with a few exceptions, communications between Washington and Tehran have been limited to public statements -- mostly mutual threats. Bilateral meetings have been shunned, especially by the United States, which has not forgotten the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and the 444-day hostage crisis that followed.
The United States has, until recently, even taken a secondary role in talks with Iran over its suspected nuclear-weapons program. In the lead are Great Britain, France, and Germany, known as the EU-3.
The Iranian government needs to show the world that it is a major player, Serfaty said, and one way to do that is to meet as equals -- even if hostile equals -- with the United States. Washington, he said, has until now sought to demean Tehran's leaders by scorning talks.
That sort of posturing has to end, Serfaty said. "We have a situation now which is ludicrous. Everybody is speaking to the Iranians except the United States. The Europeans speak to them, the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians speak to them, but not America, even though we [Americans] are the main players there," he said. "And the Iranians want to speak to us more than they want to speak to anybody else."
No Breakthrough Yet
Serfaty said that until last week's announcement, face-to-face talks between Iran and the United States seemed an outlandish idea to most people. Now, it appears to be a reality. But is it a breakthrough?
"I would not call it a breakthrough until we find out what comes out of those talks. It might be that we'll sit down and nothing will happen and after a few days we'll say, 'The hell with it,'" Serfaty said. "I don't think that this will actually happen, but it is not necessarily going to be a positive outcome. But the fact that there might be a dialogue, I think, is a very positive development."
Serfaty advises the world to watch this drama play out one act at a time. For now, he said, it is enough that the two sides are talking. Positive results, he cautioned, are another matter altogether.
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