By Victor Beattie, VOA
As international talks on Iran's nuclear program resume Monday in Vienna, the Obama administration is reportedly ready to open direct talks with Tehran on how they might blunt a Sunni militant offensive in Iraq. While one U.S. lawmaker indicated a need for Washington to work with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is reaching out to the international community, including Iraq's neighbors.
cartoon by Hassan Karimzadeh, Shahrvand daily, Tehran
The Wall Street Journal reports the Obama administration is preparing to open direct talks with Iran on how the two longtime foes can counter the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq. It says such a dialogue between the two countries, which have not had diplomatic relations in more than 30 years, is expected to begin this week, even as the United States and other world powers try to reach an agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program ahead of a July 20 deadline.
Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country is ready to help Iraq fight the militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He also left open the door to possible cooperation with Washington.
US reaches out
Secretary of State John Kerry told his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari Saturday the United States is committed to supporting Iraq, saying it was reaching out to the international community and Iraq's regional neighbors on the need to come to Iraq's aid.
In an interview with Yahoo News Monday, Kerry said drone strikes could also be used in Iraq, adding that the country is "a strategic U.S. partner and vital" to the stability of the region as a whole
Friday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf insisted Washington is not talking to Iran about Iraq.
"What we've said is that all of Iraq's neighbors, including the Iranians, need to not do things to destabilize the situation further, to not try to promote sectarian tensions," Harf said. "What we're focused on is that Iraq is a sovereign country, a sovereign nation. They make prudent decisions on how they will address the crisis that they're going through right now."
She could not confirm reports Iranian forces are already on the ground in Iraq.
Sunday, on the CBS news program Face the Nation, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham backed a dialogue with Iran
"We need to all make sure that Baghdad doesn't fall," Graham said. "So, yes, we need a dialogue of some kind with the Iranians, but we also need to put them on notice; don't use this crisis as a way to create a satellite state."
But, Congressman Mike Rogers, appearing on the Fox News Sunday broadcast, said such a bilateral dialogue would be a mistake. He said it would be a failure of U.S. leadership if Washington does not turn to the Arab League to confront this militant threat to Iraq.
The Wall Street Journal says any U.S. campaign in Iraq seen as allied with Iran and Iraq's Shi'ite majority could risk polarizing the country further and alienating Sunni-dominated countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Amin Saikal, chairman of the Center of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, however, sees great potential in direct talks between Washington and Tehran.
"Now that American and Iranian interests in the region overlap, both countries are very much opposed to extremists taking ground in the country like Iraq and, for that matter, also in Syria," Saikal noted. "Although the United States still remains very much opposed to the Assad regime in Syria, it nonetheless equally opposed to Islamist militants taking over Syria, and Iran has very strong leverage in both Iraq and Syria and is in a position to help the United States in order to help contain the spread of extremism in that region."
As for the nuclear talks, Saikal says there is a consensus building within Iran's leadership to reach a comprehensive agreement so international sanctions can be lifted to allow the economy to improve.
Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said Thursday the so-called P5+1 talks are in a very critical stage. At issue is how much uranium-enrichment capacity Iran should be allowed to maintain.
Enriched uranium can have both civilian and military applications. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the United States and other Western powers suspect Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons.
Stephen Zunes, a Mideast scholar at the University San Francisco, says Iran has long viewed the nuclear talks as a way to gain international attention to its important role in the region.
"For some time now, Iran has hoped that diplomatic talks with the United States on the nuclear issue could be expanded to look at broader economic, diplomatic and strategic cooperation," Zunes said. "Indeed, one reason Iran has taken a hard line in the talks is that they don't feel comfortable about this being the only issue in which they always seem to be on the defensive. And, observers have long argued, in fact, that the chances of getting a nuclear deal would be greatly enhanced if it would part of broader talks regarding Iran's role in the region and for Western powers to recognize that, for better or worse, Iran is a major regional actor and they need to work together."
Zunes said the crisis in Iraq may be an example of why such expanded talks with Tehran may be necessary.
The United States is sending its second-highest ranking diplomat to lead the American delegation in Vienna, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. He helped reach an interim agreement with Iran last November, in which Tehran would limit enrichment for six months in exchange for an easing of sanctions.
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