- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007

The United States and Iran have planned discussions on improving security in Iraq, U.S. officials said yesterday, but they warned against expectations of rapid progress in diplomatic negotiations with Tehran.

Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is expected to meet with Iranian officials in Baghdad “in the next few weeks,” Bush administration spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. The talks will not include discussion of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, officials said.

The U.S. objective is “trying to make sure that Iraq’s neighbors, of which Iran is obviously a major one, play a constructive role” in ending the ongoing violence in Iraq, Mr. Johndroe told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday.

He spoke as President Bush flew to Virginia for ceremonies commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. The upcoming talks were first announced yesterday by an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman.

“Iran has agreed to this after consultation with Iraqi officials in order to lessen the pain of the Iraqi people, support the Iraqi government and establish security and peace in Iraq,” Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said during a press briefing in Tehran.

Last week, Iran’s foreign minister turned down an invitation to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari welcomed the news that the Iranians “have accepted this and expressed their willingness and readiness to participate in the talks” in Baghdad.

Mr. Johndroe cautioned that the U.S.-Iran talks “should not be seen as a particular moment but as part of an ongoing process.”

The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Miss Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney have been on whirlwind diplomatic tours of the Middle East. Two days before the announcement, Mr. Cheney vowed from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier to “keep the sea lanes open” in the Persian Gulf.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney was the first to confirm the Iranian announcement of the planned talks, which reportedly were arranged with the assistance of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

“We are willing to have that conversation limited to Iraq issues at the ambassador level,” spokeswoman Lee Anne McBride said after Mr. Cheney met in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Cheney’s evident role in arranging the talks appeared to reassure Republican lawmakers.

“Well, the vice president indicated as long as the discussions are about the Iraq security issue, the administration was comfortable with it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said yesterday on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said. “I think the Iranians are part of the problem in Iraq.”

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a leading Republican critic of the administration’s Iraq policy, applauded the announcement.

“I was heartened to see that the United States and Iran are finally, evidently, going to sit down and talk,” Mr. Hagel said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“I’ve been calling for engagement with Iran for four years,” said Mr. Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Iran is not going to do us any favors, but it’s in their interest to find some common denominators here.”

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

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