SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, (Reuters) – Senior U.S. and Iranian officials met at a big international conference on Iraq on Friday but mediators failed to arrange a meeting at a higher level between the two old foes.
The meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh was another step away from the Bush administration’s longstanding policy of avoiding contact with governments which actively oppose its policies in the Middle East.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Sharm el-Sheikh on Thursday — the first contact at this level in more than two years.
Rice said that if she had had the chance she would also have met Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. “The opportunity simply didn’t arise for the foreign minister of Iran and me to meet… I would have taken that opportunity,” she told a news conference. “But our officials did … have an opportunity to exchange views about the substance of this meeting, which is how to help Iraq be more secure,” she added.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, played down the significance of the meeting, saying he spent only three minutes with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. “The exchange, such as it was, was limited and was on Iraq… It was a pass-by meeting,” he told Reuters, using the term for a brief informal encounter. The State Department’s Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, was also present.
The Iraqi government, which depends on U.S. military support but also has close ties with Iran, had pressed for a Rice-Mottaki meeting but the Iranians were cool to the idea.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari welcomed the lower level U.S.-Iran meeting. “I think it was a positive sign that at least such a thing did take place while we are here. This is a process I think. It needs more work,” he told a news conference. “There is a lot of suspicion. There is a lot of mistrust. But it is in my country’s interest really to see a reduction of this tension,” he added.
The United States has accused Shi’ite Muslim Iran of promoting violence in Iraq, which has been pushed to the brink of sectarian civil war by fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Tehran dismisses the charge.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, which hosted the two- day conference, also welcomed the meeting. “It is the beginning hopefully of a process,” he said.
On Thursday evening, Mottaki left dinner in Sharm el-Sheikh before Rice arrived to sit at the same table but Rice denied that the Iranian had snubbed her by not agreeing to meet. “Well you can ask him why he didn’t make an effort. Look, I’m not given to chasing anyone,” she said.
Asked why he did not meet Rice, Mottaki told a news conference: “There was no time, no appointment and no plans.”
“A meeting between foreign ministers has certain requirements (such as) political will and it also has to be clear on what basis such a meeting would be held,” he added.
As well as the tensions over Iraq, Washington suspects Tehran’s nuclear programme is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Iran says it is purely for generating electricity.
In closed-session talks between Iraq, its neighbours and the world’s richest and most powerful nations, Mottaki blamed Iraq’s trouble on the United States, which invaded the country in 2003 against the advice of most Middle East governments. “The United States must accept the responsibility arising from the occupation of Iraq and should not fingerpoint or put the blame on others,” Mottaki said.
“The continuation of and increase in terrorist acts in Iraq originates from the flawed approaches adopted by the foreign troops,” he added, referring to the U.S. troops who have failed to prevent massive bloodshed in Iraq over the past four years.
Mottaki also called for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal and the release of five Iranian civil servants seized by the United States in Iraqi Kurdistan in January this year.
A final communique from the meeting on Friday repeated the recommendations of previous meetings of Iraq’s neighbours.
It said the Iraqi government should “further expand political participation by actively engaging all components of the Iraqi people” — a reference which reflects the perception of Sunni Arab governments that post-invasion governments have marginalised Iraqi Sunnis.
It asked the Cairo-based Arab League to resume preparations for a reconciliation conference for Iraq, a project which has languished for over a year. “We are ready for this. We are ready to host Iraqi national reconciliation,” Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said. “Now is not the time to exchange accusations but is the time to work together.”
The communique gave no time for such a meeting, nor say where it would be held. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the best place would be inside Iraq.
On U.S. forces, the communique said their presence “will not be open-ended and will terminate upon the request of … the government of Iraq,” it added, reflecting the position of the U.S. and Iraqi governments.