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US, Iran set to confer on Iraq stability

Diplomatic effort reflects shift by Bush

WASHINGTON -- The White House announced yesterday that the US ambassador in Baghdad would meet with Iranian officials about stabilizing Iraq, probably in the next several weeks, as the administration embraced a tactic outsiders have long recommended as essential to reducing sectarian violence in Iraq.

A White House spokesman said Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker would meet with Iranian counterparts in Baghdad to prod Tehran to play a "productive role in Iraq." It was confirmed after the official Iranian news agency disclosed that the two sides had agreed to meet in Baghdad. U S officials said the meeting could occur as early as next week.

"The president authorized this channel because we must take every step possible to stabilize Iraq and reduce the risk to our troops even as our military continue to act against hostile Iranian-backed activity in Iraq," said Gordon Johndroe , the spokesman for the National Security Coun cil.

Yesterday's announcement highlighted a new phase in the Bush administration's thinking about the advisability of talks with a country the president has labeled a member of an "axis of evil." A year ago, the White House authorized discussions about Iraq with Iran, but talks never got off the ground. As recently as December, when the Iraq Study Group recommended diplomatic dialogue with Iran and Syria, administration officials indicated little interest in such talks, insisting that Iran first abandon nuclear enrichment activities.

But with pressure growing from Congress , the administration appears to have concluded that it's worth trying to see if Iran can use its influence in Iraq to help curb violence and spur political reconciliation. The administration is also shifting its stance toward Syria, another country with which it has had chilly relations, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meeting earlier this month in Egypt with her Syrian counterpart.

Administration officials stressed that the talks with Iran would be limited to the security situation in Iraq and would not include discussions on Iran's nuclear program, which are being handled by America's European allies. The United States broke diplomatic relations after U S diplomats were taken hostage in 1979; the administration has accused Tehran of helping foment violence in Iraq.

Former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton , co chairman of the Iraq Study Group, called yesterday's announcement an encouraging development. "We have a long and difficult list of problems with Iran. I would not expect immediate resolution of those, but you have to begin talks and they have to be sustained and they have to eventually get to the top levels of government," he said in an interview.

Hamilton said the Bush administration should not be rigid about the subjects for discussion. "I think the better situation is [to] go in without preconditions but with flexibility about the agenda -- and with the expectation that it will not be a single meeting but a series of meetings."

A prominent supporter of the Iraq war, however, blasted the Bush administration's decision to hold talks with Iran, saying it will be seen in the Mideast as a sign of US weakness. "I think it's foolish to believe that Iran sees its interests as compatible with American interests in Iraq," said Richard Perle, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-oriented think tank. "I don't think they are interested in stability. Iran has been contributing to instability. That is a deliberate policy and I don't expect it to change. So it's not clear what we hope to achieve."

A statement from the official Iranian news agency suggested the new talks were at the behest of Washington, though Johndroe would not say who initiated the new dialogue.

"Following consultations between Iranian and Iraqi officials, Tehran has agreed to hold negotiations with Washington to relieve pains and suffering of the Iraqi people, support and strengthen the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and stabilize security and peace in that country," said Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini.

The new US diplomatic effort is the result of a confluence of pressure from several sources. The Pentagon has long argued that an outright military victory is impossible in Iraq and the key to eventual US withdrawal will depend on political reconciliation. The Iraqi government has viewed US engagement with Iran and Syria as pivotal to political and military efforts. The agreement to talk with Iran emerged after weeks of back and forth messaging primarily through Iraqi and European officials. The two sides agreed to try mid-level talks in Baghdad during the May 3-4 summits on the future of Iraq in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, according to US, Iraqi, and Iranian officials.

James Dobbins, a former US diplomat involved in the discussions on Afghanistan, said he was doubtful the new diplomatic initiative with Iran would bear much fruit since it involves officials without the stature to make policy shifts. "The manner in which the administration has approached this suggests there is still a good deal of controversy within the administration about the degree to which they ought to engage the neighboring states," Dobbins said.