As one of the preconditions to meet with its regional rivals on Iraq, the United States had set a series of benchmarks (WashPost) for the government in Baghdad to meet, such as striking a deal on revenue sharing of oil profits. Shortly after Iraq’s deeply divided leadership agreed to such a deal, true to its word, the White House agreed to participate (NYT) in an international conference, tentatively set for March 10, which will include Syria and Iran on the issue of bringing stability to Iraq. The two sets of meetings, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced during House testimony and is expected to attend at the foreign ministerial level, marks the latest in a series of about-faces by the White House. A few weeks ago, U.S. officials signed a landmark agreement with the North Koreans as part of the Six-Party framework to suspend their nuclear program.
A regional conference that includes all of Iraq’s neighbors, as well as the permanent members of the UN Security Council, has long been a talking point of critics of the war and featured prominently in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report last December. But the Bush administration until recently has accused Iran and Syria as being part of the problem, not part of the solution, by arming and funding Iraqi militias. This Backgrounder explores Iran’s involvement in Iraq. Iran’s secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, gave a guarded endorsement of the proposed talks. The conference is expected to address security concerns over Iraq, not larger regional issues like the Israeli-Palestinian agenda or Iran’s nuclear program.
Regional talks that include Iran and Syria are widely seen as a means to achieve stability in Iraq, in light of the influence Tehran and Damascus wield over Iraq’s majority Shiites and militia groups. The blueprint for such talks is the Dayton Accords which helped resolve the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s. One of the chief architects of those accords was Richard C. Holbrooke, who warns in this CFR.org Podcast that the situation in Iraq is vastly different. “[I]n Dayton, we had the threat of bombing them,” he says. “In Iraq, the only threat that we have left is the threat that we’ll withdraw. It’s quite a different kind of thing.” But he adds that the Iranians have been helpful in past face-to-face meetings, particularly the Bonn meetings of 2002 to establish a post-war Afghan government.
CFR President Richard N. Haass argues mutual interests with Iran and Syria on Iraq create a good foundation for talks: “essentially that Iraq not implode, that we not have a country that ends up being partitioned.” The fact that the conference has not been convened at Washington’s behest also helps. CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman the about-face by the Bush administration stems from the feeling they "would be negotiating with the Iranians from a position of strength now." But he warns that this may not be the case. "It is true they’ve ratcheted up the pressure on the Iranians. But at the same time, the Iranians hold many of the cards, and even with this pressure they have the means to make the U.S. military’s life much more difficult in Iraq."