The US and Iran on Monday held their first talks on the security crisis in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, with the US side describing Iran’s public policy statements as encouraging but also demanding that it halt its armed support of Sunni and Shia factions.
Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Baghdad, called the atmosphere in nearly four hours of talks with Hassan Kazemi Qomi, his Iranian counterpart, “businesslike”.
The talks were hosted by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. There appeared no firm commitment to meet again but no side ruled out further contacts.
The Baghdad meeting was the highest level and most substantive contact between the US and Iran since Washington broke off dialogue in May 2003, when it accused Tehran of involvement in al-Qaeda bombings in Saudi Arabia. Analysts said the talks did not represent a breakthrough in troubled US-Iranian relations in any sense, but they reflected a willingness by both sides to start addressing their problems directly.
Mr Crocker was at pains to stress that the meeting was not a bilateral US-Iranian discussion, and that the sole focus had been Iraq.
The Iranian delegation proposed a “trilateral security commission” involving Iran, Iraq and the US. Mr Crocker was non-committal, saying this would be relayed to Washington but that the purpose of the meeting in Baghdad was not to discuss further meetings.
The Iranian ambassador, however, said the two countries would meet shortly.
Apparently to counter possible criticism in Tehran, where there is a vociferous lobby opposed to any negotiations with Washington, Mr Kazemi Qomi, in an interview on state television on Monday night, stressed the talks had been “clear and transparent”.
“So in terms of what happens next, I think we’re going to want to wait and see not what is said next, but what happens next on the ground – whether we start to see indications of a change in Iranian behaviour,” Mr Crocker said at his press conference.
The three-sided nature of the talks was reflected in the triangle of tables, draped in white cloth, set up for the delegations.
Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security advisor, led the Iraqi side after an initial statement given by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister.
”We are sure that securing progress in this meeting would, without doubt, enhance the bridges of trust between the two countries and create a positive atmosphere” that would help them deal with other issues, Mr Maliki said.
Hoshyer Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, told the FT that the position of the Iraqi government and the US, as he understood it, was that they wanted to see positive efforts by the Iranians to help stabilise the situation.
“If the Iranians want this meeting to [become] a process, [then] it could be if there are some results.”
Officials in Washington have spoken of the difficulty in evaluating Iran’s response to the ongoing US “surge” of reinforcements. Measuring Iran’s reaction to US demands would take time, they said.
Speaking to reporters in Washington by telephone, Mr Crocker said he was encouraged Iran took the chance to lay out its policy towards Iraq in “positive terms”. The stated Iranian position was close to that of the US, he said, namely that both wanted a stable, secure, democratic, federal Iraq at peace with its neighbours.
“They [the Iranians] led with a positive policy declaration. I found that somewhat encouraging,” he said.
But he repeatedly stressed that Iran’s actions were not in line with its policy statements, and that he had presented “solid evidence” showing that the Qods force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were arming militants – both Sunni insurgents and Shia militia – that were attacking US and Iraqi forces as well as civilians. The US was clear that this needed to stop, he said.
Mr Crocker said he specifically raised the issue of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ support for radical elements in the Jaish al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army), which is led by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Iran denied allegations it was supporting Iraqi militants.
The talks were held amid continued violence in the Iraqi capital. A car bomb blast in a central Baghdad market district killed at least 21, and gunmen were reported to have hijacked two minibuses and taken the passengers hostage.
Additional reporting by Gareth Smyth in Tehran