- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is willing to meet one on one with her Iranian counterpart at an international conference on Iraq, the State Department said yesterday.

A bilateral meeting would be the highest-level such session since the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Previous encounters have occurred at group gatherings, with other foreign ministers in the room.

“We will not exclude any particular diplomatic interaction,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters when asked whether Miss Rice would meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki outside the group sessions at the ministerial-level Iraq conference, now set for May.

“There was [a bilateral meeting] at the envoys level” at a gathering in Baghdad last month “and the same would hold true for the secretary,” Mr. McCormack said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, then U.S. ambassador to Iraq, held direct talks with Iranian delegates at the first Iraq conference in early March.

The State Department insists that Miss Rice’s talks, like those in Baghdad, would be limited to the situation in Iraq. Washington accuses Tehran of arming and training Shi’ite militiamen and providing sophisticated roadside bombs being used against U.S. troops.

Mr. McCormack said any discussions on Iran’s nuclear program would take place only after the Iranians stop enriching uranium, which they have refused to do. Tehran says its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes and not a cover for building weapons, as the West maintains.

The ministerial meeting, which had been scheduled for early this month in Istanbul, is now scheduled for the first week of May, Iraqi and U.S. officials said yesterday. A date and venue have not been decided, they said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wanted to host the conference in Baghdad, but some countries were not comfortable enough with the security situation, diplomats said. Turkey, Egypt and Kuwait have also offered to play host — with Egypt as the most likely site, they said.

The Iraqis hope the conference, comprising Iraq’s neighbors and leading world powers, will help to quell sectarian violence and stabilize the country.

It is still not clear whether Mr. Mottaki will attend the conference. Diplomats have said Iran has been resisting going to the forum before the release of five Iranians captured by the U.S. military in Iraq in January.

Mr. McCormack said the United States was considering a request from Iran for consular access to the five, who he said were classified as “security detainees” and were being held under Iraqi law and according to U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“As long as they continue to pose a threat to our forces, they are not going to be released,” he said.

Working-level meetings between the United States and Iran on Afghanistan were held in 2002. In late 2004, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was seated next to the Iranian foreign minister at a dinner with Iraq’s neighbors in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Mr. Powell’s predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright, participated in a session on Afghanistan with her Iranian counterpart and six other foreign ministers in New York in 2000.

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