Top officials from around sixty countries, including the United States and Iran, met in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for a two-day conference to tackle issues of security and power sharing in Iraq (BBC). The meeting marked the second go-around of regional talks aimed at breaking Iraq’s political stalemate, forgiving Iraqi debt, and reaching a settlement on a security plan (RFE/RL) amenable to Iraq’s neighbors, both Sunni and Shiite.
U.S. and Iranian officials at the expert level met briefly on the sidelines of the conference but reportedly only discussed Iraq (NYT). A highly anticipated one-on-one meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki never materialized (AP), although the two exchanged brief pleasantries at lunch on Thursday. Mottaki, in a statement, accused the United States of creating a “safe haven” (al-Jazeera) for terrorists capable of attacking Iraq's neighbors and refusing to release five Iranian diplomats seized in northern Iraq. But as Rice told reporters, “This is not about the United States and Iran. It's about Iraq.” On that note, Rice did meet with her Syrian counterpart, the first such high-level meeting between Syria and the United States in two years (NYT), but mainly to discuss the flow of foreign fighters across the Syrian border into Iraq.
The U.S. agreement to participate in a regional conference on Iraq with countries like Iran, as suggested by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, may demonstrate a gradual shift in the White House’s Middle East policy. “The administration has been reluctant since day one to share responsibilities and [sought] to control all developments in Iraq involving third countries,” CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon told CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman in a recent interview. As this CFR.org Timeline highlights, the last time high-level U.S. and Iranian diplomats met was at the same resort in 2004 when nothing of substance emerged. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council welcomes direct U.S.-Iranian talks but admits in this CFR.org podcast that Tehran has “no silver bullet” to solve Iraq's security problems. Were the United States to engage in direct talks with Iran, writes CFR's Ray Takeyh in the Boston Globe, Rice would need to “explicitly take the use of force off the table.”
Topping the conference's agenda, however, is whether Saudi Arabia and Iran can control fighters they allegedly support in Iraq who are responsible for the bulk of the country’s violence. The Saudis want to ensure that Iraq does not become a puppet state of Tehran, whereby greater Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula could unsettle Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite minorities. Iran, which fought an eight-year war with Saddam’s forces in the 1980s, seeks guarantees that Iraq’s Sunni minorities never reach power and pose another military threat. The trouble, writes Kamran Bokhari of the intelligence analysis website Stratfor, is that “Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite communities are so internally factionalized that neither Tehran nor Riyadh is likely to succeed in shutting down the militancy.”
Some progress has been made on Iraq's security front, writes Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, in the Washington Post. “In Anbar province,” he says, “Sunni sheikhs and insurgents have turned against al-Qaeda and to the side of Iraqi security forces. This would have been unthinkable even six months ago.” This CFR Backgrounder examines reports of the splintering of insurgent groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq.