Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday resisted calls for U.S. outreach to Iran and Syria over what the Bush administration sees as efforts by those countries to destabilize Iraq. In Senate testimony, Rice said the United States is not prepared to pay a diplomatic price for such contacts. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Rice is insisting that if Iran and Syria really wanted to help stabilize Iraq, they would do so on their own.
She told senators that if the United States was to seek dialogue just for the sake of talking, it would do so as a supplicant, and face demands to compromise over Iran's nuclear program or Syria's role in Lebanon.
U.S. outreach to Tehran and Damascus was a major recommendation of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq study commission, and was also endorsed by senators of both parties in the secretary of state's Foreign Relations Committee testimony.
Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sounded conciliatory about Iraq during a visit he and Senate colleague John Kerry made to Damascus last month, and that it is worthwhile to explore areas of common ground.
"None of us are suggesting at this table that we engage Iran or Syria as if they were an ally or friend and we're not talking about conferences where we give them a status that they don't deserve," Dodd said. "But it's awfully difficult to understand, Madame Secretary, why we would not try to engage very directly here with people here who can play a critical role in providing some stability."
Rice said past U.S. efforts to engage Syria had gotten nowhere and that there is no indication a new approach would turn out differently.
She repeated an offer to meet her Iranian counterpart any time, anywhere, if Iran met international demands to end uranium enrichment.
But she said engaging Tehran and Damascus under pressure over Iraq would require trade-offs that the Bush administration is not prepared to make.
"I think we need to recognize that if Iran and Syria wish to play a stabilizing role for their own interests, then they will do so," she said. "If on the other hand they intend to offer a stabilizing role because they believe that in our current situation in Iraq, we are willing to pay a price, that's not diplomacy, that's extortion."
Rice said she would expect Iran, under those circumstances, to seek relief from international pressure over its nuclear program, while Syria would want to stop the investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rakik Hariri, in which Syrian officials have been implicated.
President Bush leveled heavy criticism at Iran and Syria in his Iraq policy address late Wednesday, saying they are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq.
He also accused Iran of providing material help for attacks on American troops and said the United States would disrupt the flow of support from both Iran and Syria.
But under questioning from Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, Rice appeared to rule out U.S. military action inside those two countries to stop the alleged interference of Iranian-affiliated networks.
"What is really being contemplated here in terms of these networks is that we believe we can do what we need to do inside Iraq," she said. "Obviously, the president isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops. But the plan is to take down these networks in Iraq."
Military Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Peter Pace made a similar statement earlier Thursday, but at the Senate hearing Republican Senator Chuck Hagel said he was dubious about such assurances.
The Nebraska senator, a Vietnam veteran, noted that the Nixon administration lied to try to conceal 1970 U.S. military forays into Cambodia aimed at halting supplies to communist forces in the former South Vietnam.
Chairman Biden said congressional action in 2002 authorizing the invasion of Iraq does not provide for cross-border military action against Iran or Syria, and said any Bush administration attempt to construe it as such would generate a Constitutional confrontation.