SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, (AP) -Preparations are under way for the United States to meet in high-level talks here with at least one of its fiercest Mideast enemies: Syria.
The question of an Iranian-U.S. meeting remains more murky. One top American diplomat said the U.S. was looking forward to talking with Iranian officials, but the government in Tehran so far has been noncommital.
“We look forward to a good discussion around that table in Sharm el-Sheik,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in comments delivered at the British think-tank, Chatham House. “It’s been 30 years since the United States and Iran have been able to negotiate on serious issues.”
An Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak with the media, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could meet with her Syrian counterpart as early as Thursday.
Separately, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari did not rule out the possibility that Rice could also meet with Iranian officials on the sidelines of the conference bringing together regional and world powers to discuss Iraq.
“There will be an Iranian-American or Syrian-American meetings, and all the parties have expressed their enthusiasm for these meetings,” Zebari told reporters in this Red Sea resort. He did not elaborate.
Earlier Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said his government has still not decided whether to meet directly with the United States on the sidelines of the conference.
“This case is under review, no final decision has been made yet in this regard,” Mottaki said in Tehran.
The U.S. accuses Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and supporting Shiite militias in neighboring Iraq — charges Iran denies.
Rice has stressed that she has not ruled out substantive high-level talks with Syria or Iran despite strong resistance in the Bush administration to that kind of engagement.
“If we encounter each other and wander into other subjects I’m prepared to at least address them in terms of American policy,” Rice said earlier Wednesday of potential discussions with Iran’s foreign minister.
U.S. diplomatic ties with Iran were cut following the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Although there have been intermittent diplomatic contacts, the Bush administration has resisted pressure to start direct talks with Iran to improve security in Iraq.
If Rice meets with Moallem it would be the first such high-level talks since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which many blame the Syrian government. Syria denies it had anything to do with the killing, but U.S. and European officials have since shunned the regime.
The U.S. also accuses Syria’s leaders of allowing terrorists to use their country as a staging area for sending fighters, weapons and other material into Iraq — allegations Syria denies.
On Monday, Syrian President Bashar Assad stressed his country’s role in the region, predicting that the U.S. vision for a “new Middle East” would fail as the region’s conflicts continue to escalate.
“Results until now do not seem in favor of this project, and what we are seeing now in the east is a resisting Iraq, and in the west a resisting Lebanon, and in the south a resisting Palestinian people,” Assad said. “And we in Syria are in the heart of all these events.”