It wasn’t long before Washington and Tehran were back to throwing barbs (McClatchy) about each other’s Iraq policy, but their March 10 meeting as part of a regional conference in Baghdad was nonetheless greeted by Iraqis as positive. U.S. and Iranian officials, holding their first face-to-face meeting since 2004, were among representatives of thirteen countries at the conference, which focused on restoring stability in Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, made an impassioned plea (IHT) for foreign aid and military assistance. Maliki said Iraq’s neighbors could help stabilize the war-torn country by blocking financial aid to insurgent groups and by helping Iraq secure its borders. And though news reports noted a lack of solid accomplishments (AHN) coming from the meetings, both the U.S. and Iranian presidents said it was constructive. A follow-up meeting (Bloomberg) is expected in April and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she will attend.
A major issue of concern at the meeting was the flow of Iraq’s roughly two million refugees, the majority of which are pouring into Syria and Jordan. The Washington Post says the Iraq war has produced the region's largest refugee crisis since “the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948” and it is “unfolding in a climate of fear, persecution, and tragedy.” CFR's Senior Fellow Steven Simon recommends in a Council Special Report what he calls an “Iraq stabilization group,” with “an emphasis on control of borders, management of refugees, economic and technical assistance to Iraq, and diplomatic support for political reconciliation” as well as “plans for humanitarian intervention in the event that violence in Iraq becomes genocidal.” The most concrete outcome of the meetings in Baghdad was an agreement to set up working groups (NYT) on refugees, border control, and oil security.
The conference came amid an upturn in insurgent activity (AP) in Iraq, including a March 6 bombing that killed more than 150 Shiite pilgrims en route to Karbala, prompting fresh calls for more U.S. troops to be sent to Iraq. The top U.S. general in Iraq, David Petraeus, said military force would not be sufficient (BBC) for the United States to prevail, and urged entering discussion with militant groups. They were the general's first remarks since taking command.
The meetings also coincided with escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington over Iran's involvement in Iraq, its defiance of UN Security Council resolutions to suspend its nuclear program, and its support for organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. This new Backgrounder provides a timeline of official contacts between the United States and Iran the severing of formal relations during the 1979 hostage crisis. Some experts, including CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr, argue that Iran's goals in Iraq overlap with those of the United States. “Iran still doesn't want a civil war there, doesn't want a failed state,” he said in a recent interview. “And Iran wants the same government as we're working with in Baghdad to succeed.” CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook applauds the White House's about-face on Iran, saying “it should be part of our foreign policy to be talking to the Iranians and the Syrians.” Still, neither Tehran nor Washington sought direct talks on the sidelines of the Baghdad meeting.
Besides Iran, Syria, and the United States, other conference attendees included representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Arab League. But it remains unclear how much impact outside players can have on Iraq. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke called the regional conference a “good idea” but warned that “this war is being waged on the ground by ferocious forces which aren't necessarily going to be much interested in what regional and international players say.”