U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday she is ready for wide-ranging dialogue with her Iranian counterpart provided Iran halts uranium enrichment and returns to negotiations on its nuclear program. Rice was responding to calls this week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group for the United States to engage Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Secretary's news conference with German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier was her first opportunity to respond publicly to the Iraq report.
While acknowledging the seriousness of the situation in Iraq, she defended the Bush administration's handling of the war and broader Middle East policy and rejected the notion it has not been open to dialogue with Tehran and Damascus.
Rice said if Iran and Syria were interested in seeing a stable Iraq they would act accordingly. But she said both countries have chosen, as she put it, to be on the side of the divide that is fueling extremism, not moderation. She said neither should expect compensation for changing that behavior.
As to talking to Iran, she said the overriding problem is Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons but said if it met the fundamental condition for renewing dialogue with the world community on that issue, the United States is prepared for far-reaching talks. "We have offered to Iran to change 27 years of American policy and to indeed sit across the table from Iran to discuss their nuclear issue and anything else they would like to discuss, should they simply verifiably suspend their enrichment activities so that they can't keep improving those enrichment capabilities while we talk. That's the reason for the suspension. So, I'll repeat what I've said many times. I will meet by Iranian counterpart, under those conditions, any place, anytime, anywhere," she said.
Rice seemed to readily embrace the Iraq study commission's recommendation for an intensified U.S. effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to reduce broader Middle East tensions, and said she thinks there is now an opening to move the process forward.
The Secretary, who aides say is likely to undertake a Middle East peace mission early in the new year, said the commitment of the Bush administration to solve the dispute is very deep and strong and suggested President Bush has not gotten due credit for becoming in 2002 the first U.S. leader to advocate a two-state solution.
"It is now the centerpiece, and the essence, of the policies of both Israel and the moderate Palestinians that that is the formula that should resolve this conflict. It's very easy to lose sight of the fact that that is a radical change in the system, a radical change in peoples' views. We now say very easily the establishment of a Palestinian state. But when the President of the United States said it, no American President had ever dared say it as a matter of policy," she said.
For his part, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who just completed a Middle trip, expressed agreement with Rice that conditions for Middle East peacemaking have taken a positive turn, propelled by the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire in Gaza. He is heard through an interpreter:
"Let's not understate the progress we've achieved in the core conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. We have indeed been able to perceive encouraging developments of late. I myself had the opportunity to talk to the parties in the region a couple of days ago, and I took home with me the very sincere impression that it is no longer the question of stabilizing the cease-fire that is at stake now, but that the two partners have taken this one step further. Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert seem to have an interest in taking further steps," he said.
Rice said she and Steinmeier also discussed Lebanon and agreed that efforts to destabilize the elected government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, by domestic extremists and outside forces including Syria and Iran, simply cannot be tolerated.