In a shift, Iran offers dialogue on Iraq

Nation seen as enemy could give help to U.S.


WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Iranian officials said yesterday that they are willing to hold face-to-face talks about conditions in Iraq, a rare hint of accommodation even as the Bush administration branded Iran one of the United States' gravest national security challenges.

Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, said through the Iranian news agency that Tehran is willing to hold direct talks with the United States about Iraq - something the regime has previously refused to do. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy in Iraq, has been authorized to participate in narrow discussions, Bush administration officials said.

The overtures came as the administration released a national security report in which Bush said the United States "may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." The 49-page strategy statement, which reaffirmed Bush's policy of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists and other threats, harshly criticized the Iranian government as a sponsor of terrorism and accused it of lying to the international community about its nuclear ambitions.

The seemingly discordant statements underscore the problems Bush faces in dealing with Iran, four years after he denounced it as part of an "axis of evil," and the degree to which the crisis in Iraq is driving other elements of the president's foreign policy. It also might demonstrate a willingness among some senior Iranian officials to break with their sharp-tongued president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who harshly criticizes the United States.

The Bush administration sought to play down the potential U.S.-Iran talks. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said that any such discussions would be separate from the nuclear issue, characterizing them as a chance for U.S. officials to press Iran to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Khalilzad "is authorized to talk with leaders in Iran, but it's to reiterate to them and express our concerns we have about their involvement inside Iraq," McClellan said.

At the State Department, spokesman Adam Ereli said: "Obviously, the Iraqis are going to be the ones to decide the future of their country. But to the extent that we can support them by pushing forward these concerns and raising them with the Iranians, we'll do it."

Still, allowing any such negotiation is an acknowledgement by the Bush administration that Iran is uniquely positioned to play a role in Iraq, where the government is dominated by Shiite Muslims with close ties to Tehran, said John C. Hulsman, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. That realization is part of a broader reality check that Iran has imposed, he added, which has challenged the president's foreign policy.

"Iran is more complicated than Iraq," Hulsman said, noting that the Bush administration's notion that democracy would break out in the region, solving problems in Iran, "has proven to be a fantasy."

"This fantasy view that we can say democracy and it will work, or isolate the regime, talk tough and take on everyone at once, now looks really silly," Hulsman said. "Realism has kind of, with a thud, landed in the middle of this policy."

The U.S. relationship with Iran has ranged from hostile to cool since 1979, when the Carter administration broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran after militants seized the U.S. Embassy there and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.

Bush's "axis of evil" remark in 2002 reflected a hardening of attitudes on both sides. In recent months, his administration has ratcheted up pressure on Iran, supporting efforts by France, Germany and Britain to negotiate an end to Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program, but refusing to rule out military action.

But with few available alternatives for dealing with Iran, Bush might see an opportunity to gain a powerful partner on Iraq, analysts said.

"Iraq is really a crisis for the United States right now, and to the extent that some limited engagement with Iran on that issue could ameliorate what we're seeing in Iraq, I think there's a willingness to consider that," said Kenneth B. Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

Iran, for its part, might see talks with the United States as a way to stave off international sanctions over the nuclear standoff.

"They may feel it helps them make the United States somewhat less strident at the [United Nations] Security Council on the nuclear issue," Katzman said. "They may feel if they give the United States some stake in what Iran does, that it would be more likely those talks would continue" and eventually extend into other areas, he said.

Few expect the limited talks - if they materialize - to be the beginning of a warming of relations between the United States and Iran, but they could be the start of some pragmatic bargaining.

"Rhetoric is really what the United States and Iran are best at exchanging. Both sides will very vehemently tell you, `No, we are not dealing with each other,'" said Sanam Vakil of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and author of a forthcoming book on U.S.-Iranian relations.

"With the United States and Iran competing in Iraq," Vakil added, "they have realized that it would be in both countries' interests to stop this battle of words that has been going back and forth and perhaps try to work together and try to work for stability in Iraq."

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