- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

Iran said yesterday it will attend a meeting with the United States and Iraq’s neighbors in Baghdad on Saturday, and U.S. officials said they may use the occasion to hold bilateral talks with Iran that would be limited to Iraq’s security.

The conference will mark the first time in more than two years that envoys from Iran and the United States have met in public.

“An Iranian delegation, in order to help and support the Iraqi nation, will attend the meeting of Iraq’s neighboring countries,” Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said at a press conference in Tehran.

He did not name the head of Iran’s delegation but the official IRNA news agency identified Iran’s envoy as Abbas Araghchi, a deputy to Mr. Mottaki for legal and international affairs.

U.S. officials welcomed Tehran’s decision and said they would raise the issue of what they called Iran’s exporting of terrorism in Iraq.

“There are a number of things that the Iranians can do to demonstrate their bona fides as good neighbors, and we hope they’ll do it,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters.

“To be helpful, Iran needs to make sure that there is no more exporting into Iraq of people who are committing acts of terror and also weapons that are being used to kill Americans and Iraqis and others within Iraq, in an effort to disrupt the government,” he said.

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said that a U.S.-Iran meeting on the sidelines of Saturday’s conference is possible.

U.S. participants in the meeting — Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and David Satterfield, adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — “aren’t going to go run in the corner if there is an opportunity for a discussion,” Mr. McCormack said.

“I cannot tell you that [a bilateral meeting] will take place,” Mr. McCormack said. “I can tell you, however, that should one take place, that it will not be on any issue other than Iraq and issues related to Iraq’s security.”

U.S. and Iranian envoys last met in public in November 2004, at a meeting of more than a dozen nations in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, to discuss Iraq’s future.

In addition to the U.S. and Iraq’s neighbors, other participants in Saturday’s conference will include the Arab League and permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. McCormack said Iran’s nuclear program will continue to be addressed among the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia — and Germany, which are demanding that Tehran stop enriching uranium.

Iran dismisses U.S. charges that it is stirring up trouble in Iraq.

It also rejects Western accusations that it is trying to build a nuclear weapon under the cover of a civilian program. A Security Council resolution in December imposed limited sanctions on the Islamic republic, and diplomats are currently discussing a follow-up resolution.

Also yesterday, a retired Israeli spy said that an Iranian ex-deputy defense minister who went missing in what may have been a Western intelligence operation is best known to Israel as the “founder” of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

Alireza Askari, 63, disappeared while on a trip to Turkey last month, and the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet said in an unsourced report that he was involved in Iran’s nuclear program. If so, he would be a major asset for Western or Israeli interrogators.

A former official with Israel’s foreign spy service Mossad, Ram Igra, said that before Mr. Askari took up the Defense Ministry post, he had been a commander with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the main sponsor of Shi’ite guerrilla group Hezbollah.

“In the 1980s and early 1990s, Askari was responsible for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon. This is his real importance, not his connection to the Iranian Defense Ministry,” Mr. Igra told Israel Radio. “He lived in Lebanon and, in effect, was the man who built, promoted and founded Hezbollah.”

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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