The announcement that the United States is willing to discuss the Iraq issue with Iran and Syria in a multinational forum came as a surprise. Until now, the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to talk to the two governments about the issue. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, administration officials insist there is no change in policy, but expert analysts disagree.
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dropped what many observers considered to be a diplomatic bombshell. She said U.S. officials will discuss the Iraqi situation at an upcoming multilateral conference with, among other countries, Iran and Syria.
White House spokesman Tony Snow insists there is no change in U.S. policy on dialogue with the two countries, pointing out there have been conferences where U.S. diplomats have been in the room with their Iranian and Syrian counterparts.
"I mean, it's just - it's not new," said Mr. Snow. "What's going on here is something that has a long set of precedents. There are multilateral forums where, if the Iranians are there, we're not going to walk out. The Iraqis, we have always said, if they invite us to this regional forum, we will be there. They invited us. We're going to be there."
But at a January 12 Senate hearing, Secretary Rice said that after many years of hostility between Iran and the United States, for the U.S. to engage Iran on the Iraqi issue would indeed mark a policy change.
"There's a 27-year history of not engaging Iran," she noted. "So this would be a major shift in policy. Of course, we did talk to them about Afghanistan when that made sense."
Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, says the change represents the administration's desire to steer events not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan as well.
"This really, as far as I can see, represents a shift in thinking that is going on about what to do about Iran in the wake of what is going to come out of Iraq and, lesser so perhaps, out of Afghanistan," said Mr. Goodson.
Bringing Iran and Syria into a dialogue about Iraq was a key recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group last year. But the Bush administration rejected that idea, opting instead for an infusion of additional troops into Iraq to try to stabilize the deteriorating security situation.
Ken Katzman, a Middle East analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the shift came because the administration is looking for fallback positions if the troop surge fails.
"I think what is driving this apparent shift is that the options really in Iraq are narrowing," he said. "It looks very clear to many observers that this Baghdad security plan, the troop surge, so to speak, is not going to do what was anticipated. And the administration wants to say, 'no, we're not out of options, we have this diplomatic strategy, we have other options we can pursue, and it's not time to give up on Iraq.'"
Larry Goodson says the troop increase, which he calls "surge light," will not work, and the administration is now casting about for diplomatic options that may have previously been taboo.
"This is us trying to get some nations in the region that a couple of years ago the president and those around him were quite adamant that we just were not going to talk to, they were not going to be dealt with in that way," he added. "Now we're turning to them and trying to get them to assist us, really. I mean, from our point of view, that's the way it has to be seen."
There were in fact earlier feelers about engaging Iran on the Iraq situation. But, say analysts, Iran tried to be bring extraneous issues into the discussion, like the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions, so nothing really materialized.
Ken Katzman says Iran will likely try to gain some nuclear concessions in return for its help in Iraq. But, he says, the Bush administration will keep the focus only on Iraq.
"I suspect that in the context of this multilateral conference that Iran is going to try to do something like that again and try to get the U.S. to back off on the nuclear issue in exchange for being helpful at this conference and subsequent conferences on Iraq," he explained. "And I think the administration is not likely to go for that because I think President Bush wants to go out of office saying he did not allow Iran to become a nuclear power."
The conference is scheduled to be held March 10 in Baghdad.