The State Department said Monday it expects U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to meet with Iranian diplomats within the next couple of weeks to discuss efforts to stabilize Iraq. An informal agreement to have the contacts was reached earlier this month at the conference in Egypt of Iraq's neighbors and major world powers. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Officials here stress that they do not have high expectations for the meetings, which they say will be a test of Iran's professed interest in having a stable Iraqi neighbor.
An agreement to have the discussion was reached in informal U.S.-Iranian contacts on the sidelines of the ministerial-level conference of Iraq's neighbors and world powers earlier this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had only a brief and non-substantive contact at that meeting with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki.
But Ambassador Crocker is understood to have had a lengthier discussion with a senior Iranian official, in which it was mutually decided to have the talks in the so-called "Baghdad channel."
Though the two counties do not have diplomatic relations, the Bush administration has said since 2005 that it was ready to have talks with Iran, limited to the subject of Iraq, through the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad.
In a talk with reporters, State Department Deputy spokesman Tom Casey provided no details of the upcoming Baghdad discussions other than to say that he expects them to occur in the next couple of weeks.
Casey said the dialogue will put to the test Iranian statements made at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting and elsewhere that it is interested in helping achieve peace and stability in Iraq:
"I don't think anyone has seen consistency in Iranian rhetoric and actions," he said. "The rhetoric has consistently said that they wish to be of help to Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi government. The actions, unfortunately, through the continuation of provision of IED's [Improvised Explosive Devices] , through support for militias and other things, has not matched that rhetoric. So this will be another opportunity, as the neighbors conferences were, to discuss some of those issues, and to see if there is any change of behavior."
Formal U.S.-Iranian relations were severed after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by student radicals who held more than 50 U.S. diplomats and officials hostage for more than a year.
But diplomats of the two countries have had occasional contacts over the years, including talks on Afghanistan conducted by the former American envoy to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Secretary of State Rice has said the United States is prepared to have open-ended political discussions with Iran, going beyond Iraq, if it suspended uranium enrichment under terms of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton study commission on the Iraq war late last year recommended that the Bush administration have diplomatic dialogue on Iraq with both Iran and Syria.
Former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the panel, has welcomed word of the impending U.S.-Iranian talks as an encouraging development, and says they eventually must extend to top levels of the two governments.
However former Bush administration Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says the decision to hold talks with Iran over Iraq is foolish and will be seen in the region as a sign of U.S. weakness.