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U.S. to Join Iran, Syria at Baghdad Security Conference

February 28, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: When Secretary of State Rice announced yesterday that the United States would willingly join Iran and Syria at a regional conference in Baghdad next month, it represented a departure from previous administration policy. This is what Secretary Rice told the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner just this past December.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: We’ve given the Iranians a chance to talk; in fact, we’ve said we will reverse 27 years of policy. I myself have said I’ll show up any place, any time, anywhere to talk with my Iranian counterpart, with other European leaders, if the Iranians will just do the one, simple thing that the world has been asking them to do for almost three years: suspend their enrichment capabilities — enrichment activities so that they’ll continue to perfect the technologies to produce a nuclear weapon.

GWEN IFILL: So what changed? And what can this new multilateral approach accomplish?

For that, we turn to two columnists with extensive experience covering the Middle East: David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Trudy, that was a very important “if” that Secretary Rice told Margaret last December, which is, yes, I’ll go to this meeting, if these other things happen. That “if” was not repeated yesterday. What changed?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I think what changed is that Secretary Rice realized that you can’t have stability inside Iraq unless there is some kind of contact between the United States, Iraqi leaders, and Iraq’s neighbors, and that includes contact between the United States and Iran.

Because, right now, you have a civil war inside Iraq, and it threatens to spill out outside, with Sunni Arabs supporting one side, Shiite Iran supporting its coreligionists, who are Arabs, inside Iraq. And there’s really a danger of explosion.

And a lot of tension has been ratcheted up by overt U.S. pressure on Iran recently. And I’m surmising that the secretary understood that this was getting really dangerous and that it was time, perhaps, for the kind of diplomacy, maybe, recommended by the Iraq Study Group.

'Breaking the ice'

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
The hope is in the administration that this will be the beginning of a process, both for Iraq and in some kind of real discussions between the U.S. and Iran and Syria, about how to stabilize that country.

GWEN IFILL: But, David Ignatius, why are talks the solution here? Even Secretary Rice has said, and I quote her, "You can't just talk about talks. You have to say what will come out of them." What would come out of these talks?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Well, the first thing to say is that these are not going to be direct, bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran or the U.S. and Syria. Everybody will be around a big table together in this first meeting.

It's a way of breaking the ice. You know, I think of it as tiptoeing toward the kind of engagement that the Baker-Hamilton report...

GWEN IFILL: Including Britain and China and you name it?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Yes, all of the permanent five representatives to the Security Council will be there. So it's a way of gathering all the interested parties in Iraq's future together and talking about Iraq. And that's the thing I think that administration officials are stressing.

This is really about Iraq. Iraq is calling the conference. It does have real symbolic importance. Even if absolutely nothing comes out of this meeting, the fact that it's held, the fact that all of the neighbors are there recognizing the government, sitting at the table with this new Iraqi government that the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, all of the dominant powers in the world are there supporting it, it's going to say something to the world about this poor, frail government, its seriousness.

I think, you know, the hope is in the administration that this will be the beginning of a process, both for Iraq and in some kind of real discussions between the U.S. and Iran and Syria, about how to stabilize that country. That's the first step.

'A big table' for talks

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
These talks will only actually have meaning and create possibly a road to stabilization in Iraq if there is some kind of behind-the-scenes talking, confidence-building between the United States and Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, it seems interesting that we're talking about, first of all, no bilateral talks, no direct talks, just U.S.-Syria or U.S.-Iran, and that, in fact, as David described, there's going to be a big table, and the very fact of the meeting is significant.

But how do you keep all those other subjects off the table? We've heard Dick Cheney talking about all options being on the table when it comes to speaking to Iran's nuclear ambitions. We know there are warships in the Gulf which are supposed to be threatening Iran. There are all these other things up in the air.

TRUDY RUBIN: I think this puts the pointer towards the essential issue here: What does the United States want out of these talks?

In 2001, there were talks over Afghanistan, multilateral talks, the Bonn talks, in which the United States and Iran participated. And the significance was that behind the scenes, in the middle of this multilateral gathering, the U.S. and Iran were talking on the side lines, out of the glare of publicity, and they actually cooperated tremendously to stabilize Afghanistan.

These talks will only actually have meaning and create possibly a road to stabilization in Iraq if there is some kind of behind-the-scenes talking, confidence-building between the United States and Iran. It's not clear yet whether the United States wants that.

But if it's just a multilateral gathering, there was one of those in 2004, a conference about helping Iraq's economy, at which Secretary of State Colin Powell sat next to the Iranian foreign minister, and they were only able to have chitchat, because their governments weren't speaking. If that's the way it works out, I don't think these talks will help very much.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that, David?

DAVID IGNATIUS: No, I think the symbolic importance of everybody gathering in Baghdad, sitting at the invitation of the new Iraqi government is something. It is not going to solve the fundamental problems between the U.S. and Iran. It could contribute to that solution.

I think that it's important to understand why the administration has done this now, after saying in the clip that you showed at the beginning of the program and many other statements that it wasn't interested in talking to Iran.

I think there was a fear back in December, when the Baker-Hamilton report, the Iraq Study Group report, was issued, that the U.S. was seen in Tehran as so weak that, if we made an approach to them at that point, the Iranians would think we were coming to negotiate the terms of our surrender in Iraq, the surrender of our position in the Gulf.

And there is a feeling that -- for various reasons, sending the warships in, sending more troops into Baghdad, taking a tougher stance on many levels -- that the U.S. is more credible now in Tehran and that that's having some positive effect. And it's for that reason easier for us now, not feeling so weak, to sit down and talk with them.

But, you know, it remains to be seen what the Iranians want to do. I do think the U.S. and Iran do share a national interest in helping this Iraqi government, which leans towards Tehran, after all, succeed. The Iranians want that, they say, and we obviously want it.

North Korea comparisons

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The North Korean situation is actually much easier than the tensions between the United States and Iran, even though it's very difficult.

GWEN IFILL: Let's try to draw a comparison, Trudy, about what happened in the most recent talks in North Korea, another country which is not considered to be a terrible friend, which also has nuclear ambitions. It emerged after that agreement was reached that this latest agreement, six-party agreement, was reached, that, in fact, there had been private, bilateral meetings in Berlin involving the chief negotiator and the North Koreans. Is that something which -- why doesn't that apply here, I guess?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that's a very interesting comparison. The North Korean situation is actually much easier than the tensions between the United States and Iran, even though it's very difficult.

But, in reality, in the North Korean talks, the six-party talks basically were dragging on, going nowhere, until Ambassador Chris Hill, the U.S. ambassador, finally got permission to have bilateral talks within the multilateral framework. And that's when the whole thing took off.

And I think that there will be a tremendous opportunity missed here, if something like that doesn't happen. After all, last spring, Ambassador Khalilzad, our ambassador to Baghdad, offered to talk to the Iranians, and they accepted.

And something quite amazing happened: Their supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, publicly endorsed talks with the United States, which hasn't happened in the whole awful history of our relations. And then the U.S. backed off.

I think, at this point, these sticks that have been applied by the United States may have had some results, but if some advantage isn't taken of that, if there isn't some attempt to capitalize on that with some carrots, and some behind-the-scenes talks, and making clear to the Iranians that their cooperation on many things, in return the United States would no longer be seeking regime change, if you don't have that quid pro quo somehow inferred in the background and communicated, I think these talks would be a waste.

Best and worst outcomes

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
In terms of the U.S.-Iranian relationship...this is a first, small step toward really talking. The big talk that we have to have with Iran is about its nuclear program. That's very complicated for both sides, but this is a step in that direction.

GWEN IFILL: So, given that, let me ask you both a final question, starting with you, Trudy. What is the best possible -- and I suppose the worst possible -- outcome of talks like this, if they actually happen?

TRUDY RUBIN: Well, I think that the most wasteful outcome would be if you had a situation like in 2004, where the Iranian and U.S. representatives simply made meaningless chitchat. And then what would you have is a continuation of this build-up of Shiite-Sunni tension in the region, which runs the risk of having a wider civil war fought over the bleeding body of Iraq.

The best outcome, I believe, would be if behind-the-scenes talks created some kind of confidence-building between the two countries, which led to further talks on their common interests in stabilizing Iraq, and maybe had some positive feedback on nuclear talks.

GWEN IFILL: David?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Yes, I think the best outcome, in terms of Iraq, would be that you have now a regional group, with backing from the world superpowers, that's trying to help contain the civil war in Iraq, reduce violence there, and gradually you find political stability.

And, you know, in terms of the U.S.-Iranian relationship, which is crucial, that this is a first, small step toward really talking. And the big talk that we have to have with Iran is about its nuclear program. That's very complicated for both sides, but this is a step in that direction.

The worst outcome would be that this is a diplomatic food fight. I mean, these neighbors all are furious at each other. The Saudis are angry at Iran, and everybody is angry at Syria. So the conference could be a forum for very bitter exchanges.

I don't think that will happen. I think symbolically it will be a photo opportunity. And then we'll see what follows.

GWEN IFILL: David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thank you both very much.