The State Department confirmed Monday that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has been authorized to hold talks with Iranian officials on issues related to Iraq. But U.S. officials are downplaying the broader significance of such contacts.
The State Department is confirming Mr. Khalilzad's own assertion that he has been authorized to meet Iranian officials, but it is dismissing the notion that such contacts amount to a break-through in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Mr. Khalilzad told Newsweek magazine that President Bush had given him the go-ahead to engage Iranian officials, and that the move was a departure in the relationship with Tehran.
Official relations between the United States and Iran were broken off after U.S. diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage during Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
But the two sides have had occasional political contacts through the United Nations or Swiss channels, and diplomats of the two countries have engaged each other at multilateral forums, including so-called six-plus-two talks involving neighboring states of Afghanistan, the United States and Russia.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Mr. Khalilzad's mandate with the Iranians would be very narrow and focus on Iran's relationship with an emerging, democratic Iraq.
"We believe Iran and Iraq should have the kinds of good relations that most neighbors enjoy, that those relations be governed by mutual respect and transparency," Mr. McCormack said. "So we would expect nothing less from Iran with respect to Iraq. I think that you have heard the same from the Iraqis as well."
Ambassador Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, was the U.S. ambassador in Kabul before assuming the Baghdad post in March and had past contacts with Iranians concerning Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in mid-October the United States was considering possible direct contacts with Iran as part on effort to deal with violence in Iraq.
The Bush administration, which has accused Iran of supporting Middle east terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons, has pressed Iran to seal off its border to would-be Iraqi insurgents and to avoid meddling in Iraqi affairs.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in September Iran's involvement with majority Shi'ites in southern Iraq was not helpful and cautioned Tehran not to overplay its hand in the region.