Rice to break talks taboo


Summary

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading for a series of meetings on Iraq, ready to open a "firm" dialogue with the previously taboo regimes in Iran and Syria.

Struggling to gain some diplomatic momentum in a Middle East roiling with crisis, Rice is widely expected to break with the Bush administration's boycott of Tehran and Damascus during the talks.

The meetings Thursday and Friday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh will involve all Iraq's neighbours.

One, between Iraqi donors, is aimed at slashing Baghdad's foreign debt and boosting reconstruction efforts.

The other meeting concerns security.

Also included in the talks are the five permanent UN Security Council members plus leaders of the United Nations, European Union, Canada, Germany and Japan.

But all eyes will be on Ms Rice to see if she finally takes the leap and meets directly with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, for the highest level substantive discussions between the two nations since Washington broke off relations with Tehran in 1980 over the embassy hostage crisis.

After weeks of refusing to confirm whether or not Ms Rice would talk to Mr Mottaki, President George W. Bush left little doubt in remarks Monday that his top diplomat had instructions to press ahead.

He told a news conference Ms Rice "would be polite but firm" if she encounters Mr Mottaki, "reminding the representative of the Iranian government that there is a better way forward for the Iranian people."

The US accuses Iran of a litany of misbehaviour, from trying to develop nuclear weapons to supporting anti-US and sectarian violence in Iraq and violent extremists in Lebanon and among the Palestinians.

US officials have insisted that any US-Iran discussions at Sharm el-Sheikh will be strictly limited to Iraq-related issues, leaving the thorniest issue of Tehran's nuclear program for a separate, multilateral negotiating track.

Ms Rice has also not ruled out making her first overture to her counterpart from Syria, which Washington also accuses of supporting Iraqi insurgents and other "terrorists" around the region.

The latest US government terrorist report, issued Monday, ranked Iran and Syria as the two top "state sponsors of terrorism."

Pressure from the EU

Yet the Bush administration has been under intense pressure at home and abroad to engage directly with both governments in order to stabilize Iraq and end the costly US occupation of the country.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, last week publicly called on Washington to "open a channel of communication with Iran," including on the nuclear question.

The issue was discussed Monday in Washington during a US-EU summit, said a senior EU source involved in the talks and who said Rice appeared determined to at least tentatively end the silent treatment of Iran.

"It will not be a formal meeting, it will be a first contact," the source said on condition of anonymity because the summit talks were confidential.

Rice's special adviser on Iraq, David Satterfield, insisted Monday that any discussions with the Iranians would steer clear of Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

If nuclear issue comes up, he said, "she will refer that issue to the very qualified hands and channel of Javier Solana" — who has been handling talks with Iran on behalf of the permanent Security Council members plus Germany.

Washington insists it will only join nuclear negotiations with Iran if Tehran first complies with multiple Security Council resolutions demanding it freeze a uranium enrichment program many believe is a cover for developing a nuclear bomb.

Iran insists the program is aimed only at producing fuel for nuclear power stations, an activity permitted under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading for a series of meetings on Iraq, ready to open a "firm" dialogue with the previously taboo regimes in Iran and Syria.

Struggling to gain some diplomatic momentum in a Middle East roiling with crisis, Rice is widely expected to break with the Bush administration's boycott of Tehran and Damascus during the talks.

The meetings Thursday and Friday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh will involve all Iraq's neighbours.

One, between Iraqi donors, is aimed at slashing Baghdad's foreign debt and boosting reconstruction efforts.

The other meeting concerns security.

Also included in the talks are the five permanent UN Security Council members plus leaders of the United Nations, European Union, Canada, Germany and Japan.

But all eyes will be on Ms Rice to see if she finally takes the leap and meets directly with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, for the highest level substantive discussions between the two nations since Washington broke off relations with Tehran in 1980 over the embassy hostage crisis.

After weeks of refusing to confirm whether or not Ms Rice would talk to Mr Mottaki, President George W. Bush left little doubt in remarks Monday that his top diplomat had instructions to press ahead.

He told a news conference Ms Rice "would be polite but firm" if she encounters Mr Mottaki, "reminding the representative of the Iranian government that there is a better way forward for the Iranian people."

The US accuses Iran of a litany of misbehaviour, from trying to develop nuclear weapons to supporting anti-US and sectarian violence in Iraq and violent extremists in Lebanon and among the Palestinians.

US officials have insisted that any US-Iran discussions at Sharm el-Sheikh will be strictly limited to Iraq-related issues, leaving the thorniest issue of Tehran's nuclear program for a separate, multilateral negotiating track.

Ms Rice has also not ruled out making her first overture to her counterpart from Syria, which Washington also accuses of supporting Iraqi insurgents and other "terrorists" around the region.

The latest US government terrorist report, issued Monday, ranked Iran and Syria as the two top "state sponsors of terrorism."

Pressure from the EU

Yet the Bush administration has been under intense pressure at home and abroad to engage directly with both governments in order to stabilize Iraq and end the costly US occupation of the country.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, last week publicly called on Washington to "open a channel of communication with Iran," including on the nuclear question.

The issue was discussed Monday in Washington during a US-EU summit, said a senior EU source involved in the talks and who said Rice appeared determined to at least tentatively end the silent treatment of Iran.

"It will not be a formal meeting, it will be a first contact," the source said on condition of anonymity because the summit talks were confidential.

Rice's special adviser on Iraq, David Satterfield, insisted Monday that any discussions with the Iranians would steer clear of Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

If nuclear issue comes up, he said, "she will refer that issue to the very qualified hands and channel of Javier Solana" — who has been handling talks with Iran on behalf of the permanent Security Council members plus Germany.

Washington insists it will only join nuclear negotiations with Iran if Tehran first complies with multiple Security Council resolutions demanding it freeze a uranium enrichment program many believe is a cover for developing a nuclear bomb.

Iran insists the program is aimed only at producing fuel for nuclear power stations, an activity permitted under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.