- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

TEHRAN - A rare encounter between Washington and Tehran over the weekend exposed the deep differences between the two countries, with the chief participants unable to agree whether they talked at all.

“There were no direct talks between us and the Americans” during Saturday’s multilateral meeting in Baghdad, said Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs.

That contradicted U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who reported after the meeting of Iraq, its neighbors and the United States that “I did talk to directly and in the presence of others.”

Nor were the delegates agreed on the nature of the discussions, most of which took place behind closed doors.

Mr. Araghchi accused foreign forces of fueling a cycle of bloodshed in Iraq and demanded “a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.” But Mr. Khalilzad called the talks with Iran “constructive and businesslike and problem-solving,” stressing that they had focused exclusively on Iraq.

Despite the differences, the way seems clear for further U.S.-Iran talks when the same group of countries meets again in Turkey next month, this time at the foreign-minister level with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expected to attend.

Iran’s state-controlled press largely ignored the Baghdad conference, focusing instead on an important Shi’ite religious festival. The only live reports from Iraq were from the cities of Najaf and Karbala, which were crowded with visiting pilgrims.

But Arab press focused intently on the meeting. Evening programs on the two main pan-Arab news channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were awash with speculation and comment on what had transpired.

Al Jazeera’s most-popular talk-show host, Faisal Qasim, hosted a live show from the villa retreat of a senior Lebanese politician, with live satellite linkup to commentators in Cairo and Doha, Qatar.

“The most important message to come out of this conference was the Iranian representative’s message that the beginning of true dialogue will happen when the U.S. withdraws from Iraq,” said Anis al-Naqqash, a pro-Iranian Lebanese commentator. “Tonight, the secret meetings begin.”

A contrary view came from Iraq’s Arab neighbors and Sunni powers such as Egypt.

“America wants to change the balance of power in the region using revolutionary methods, and so does Iran,” said Abdel Monem Said, the director of the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo. “So it’s up to Saudi Arabia and Egypt to bring about stability to Iraq and to the region.”

Al Jazeera led its main evening news with the Iraq conference and interviewed Iranian, Syrian and U.S. spokesmen in Tehran, Damascus and Abu Dhabi.

“The Iranians came to the conference to tell the Americans that the most urgent priority is for the Americans to hand over the security file to the Iraqis themselves,” said Mohammed Hussein Hashemi, an Iranian writer and commentator speaking from Tehran.

That is something that Washington is unlikely to do soon, but reveals the direction in which Iranian regional ambitions lie.

With Iranian intelligence reportedly having heavily infiltrated the Iraqi government and its security institutions, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would create a security gap that Tehran would seek to fill through its political proxies, even as Saudi Arabia the key Sunni Arab regional power tried to block it.

“If you think that a handshake between Araghchi and Khalilzad means all problems are solved, you’re wrong,” Alireza Nourizadeh, a London-based Iranian exile journalist, told the Voice of America’s Persian-language news service.

“Both the U.S. and the Islamic Republic had said that they’ll talk exclusively about Iraq, but they’ve also paved the way for deeper negotiations next month in Turkey that may include the nuclear issue.”

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