Representatives of Iraq's neighboring countries, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Arab and Muslim nations are all scheduled to meet in Baghdad this Saturday, March 10 to seek some kind of regional consensus that will end the violence in Iraq. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, analysts see the conference as a first step and do not expect any major breakthroughs.
Although the talks are about Iraq, the spotlight of the multilateral conference will be on the interaction between the representatives of the United States and Iran.
U.S.-Iranian relations have been non-existent since 1979, although both countries did cooperate in the 2001 Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. The mutual hostility between Tehran and Washington has gotten even more heated as of late, as the Bush administration accuses Iran of arming insurgents in Iraq, and Iran continues to defy international demands to halt uranium enrichment.
Yet, in what most analysts label a policy change, President Bush now says the U.S. will sit down at the same table with Iran, as well as Syria, to discuss Iraq.
"They [the talks] will be a test of whether Iran and Syria are truly interested in being constructive forces in Iraq," he said. "It will be a test for the international community to express its support for this young democracy, to support a nation that will be at peace with its neighbors. Diplomacy is going to play an important part of securing Iraq's future."
George Friedman, chief executive officer of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says the U.S. had no choice but to engage Iran because Washington and Tehran are in a stalemate over Iraq.
"Neither can have what they want," he said. "The United States is not going to get a pro-American government in Baghdad governing all the country. Iran is not going to get a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad governing all the country. Each side can block the other's ambitions, but neither side has to give in to give the other what they want. And what we're now doing is trying to do is find an accommodation that both sides can live with."
Wayne White, former chief State Department intelligence analyst on Iraq, is not optimistic that much of substance will emerge from the conference. Echoing the findings of a recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, he says the root cause of the violence lies in Iraq, not Iran.
"My reasoning about why I don't think it's going to do much is I don't think Iran is the problem," he said. "I think the cycle of violence in Iraq is the problem. And so since the problem is 95 percent Iraqi, and the Iraqi government is a shambles, I don't expect these kinds of conferences to have much effect."
Mehrzad Boroujerdi, chairman of Middle East Studies at Syracuse University, says the U.S. will have to overcome Iranian and Syrian suspicion and mistrust of the United States. He says Washington will also have to offer some substantive concessions to Tehran and Damascus to get meaningful results out of the conference, but sees no sign that the Bush administration is willing to do so.
"The Iranians and the Syrians are going to be a bit apprehensive about signing on the dotted line on a plan that is to the liking of the United States without necessarily getting something in return, or an acknowledgement of the fact that they are going to have a say in the future of Iraq," noted Boroujerdi. "And frankly, I don't see the White House at this point being in the mood or ready to make such a compromise. So, at the end of the day, the question becomes, what besides a 'blaming game' would we get from this conference?"
Analysts also point out that the interaction between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be crucial to watch at the conference. Saudi Arabia, an Arab nation of Sunni Muslims, has long been a rival to Iran, which is Persian and overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Riyadh one week before the Baghdad Conference for talks with King Abdullah.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi says Iran is warning Saudi Arabia not to oppose Iran's attempts to extend its influence in Iraq and the region.
"To me it has become quite clear that the U.S. is trying to convince the Saudis to side with them, to sort of create a Sunni bloc against the Shiite influence coming out of Iran," he said. "And I think the Iranians have also recognized the handwriting on the wall, and they are trying to do their part by having Ahmadinejad going to Saudi Arabia to politely and firmly let them know that this is going to have high costs for states that line up against Iran."
Meanwhile, the United States continues to proceed with its deployment of at least 22,000 additional troops to Iraq to try to stabilize the security situation.