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U.S. and Iranian Diplomats Meet to Discuss Iraq Security

May 28, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen Ifill has our story on the U.S.-Iran talks.

GWEN IFILL: Today’s four-hour meetings in Baghdad were the highest-level talks between the United States and Iran in decades. The discussions were limited to Iraq, part of U.S. efforts to enlist neighboring countries to help end sectarian violence there.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said afterward he saw positive steps during the meeting, which he said was “businesslike.” But Iran rejected one key U.S. complaint: that Iran is supporting militias inside Iraq.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: We also made it clear, from the American point of view, that this is about actions, not just principles. And I laid out before the Iranians a number of our direct, specific concerns about their behavior in Iraq, their support for militias that are fighting both the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces.

GWEN IFILL: For his part, the Iranian envoy said he proposed forming a committee to help the Iraqi government with security matters. He pressed for a second round of meetings with the U.S. next month.

For more than a year, American officials have alleged Iran is providing weapons to Shiite Iraqi insurgents, including a particularly deadly device called explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs. Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace described the threat in a briefing earlier this month.

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: There were more explosively formed projectiles this month than any month in the past. To the best of our knowledge, all of them are manufactured in Iran, so that’s not a good trend. It still, though, is not possible to point directly to who inside of Iran is supplying those or who has knowledge of those.

GWEN IFILL: But differences between the U.S. and Iran have also been escalating on a host of other issues. Last week, the U.S. increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf, moving nine warships, including two aircraft carriers, into the region for war games.

And the talks did not address the highly charged issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Last Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, said Iran has expanded efforts to enrich uranium, despite international demands they stop. The report also said inspectors are being blocked from sensitive sites.

The chief U.N. inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, said the best hope now is to contain Iran’s program, not to stop it altogether. “Unchecked,” he said, “Iran will complete the program in a few years.”

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, Director General, IAEA: Iran, even if it wants to go for the nuclear weapon, they are still not — it will not be before the end of this decade or some time in the middle of the next decade, in other words, three to eight years from now.

GWEN IFILL: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Tehran the international community is backing down. He spoke last Thursday.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): Iran has reached the end of the path of benefiting from all nuclear capabilities, and we are near the peak now. The resistance of our enemies has already been weakened and will be weakened day by day.

GWEN IFILL: Iran has insisted its nuclear program is designed to generate electricity, but the U.S. and others say it’s for weapons.

At a Rose Garden news conference last week, President Bush called again for stepped-up United Nations sanctions directed against Iran.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: They continue to be defiant as to the demands of the free world. The world has spoken and said, you know, “No nuclear weapons programs,” and yet they’re constantly ignoring the demands. My view is that we need to strengthen our sanction regime.

GWEN IFILL: The president also condemned Iran for detaining three Iranian-Americans, a subject that was not brought up at today’s meetings.

GEORGE W. BUSH: To the extent that these people are picking up innocent Americans, it’s unacceptable.

GWEN IFILL: Among those detained: Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant working for George Soros’ Open Society Institute, he was jailed May 11th; Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, she’s been under virtual house arrest since December and in prison since early this month; journalist Parnaz Azima, who is prohibited from leaving the country. In January, authorities seized her passport. She works for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda.

Iran has dismissed calls to free them. Instead, they counter, the U.S. is holding five Iranians as hostages. They were seized in northern Iraq in January. Iranian officials say they’re diplomats, but the U.S. charges they’re linked to an Iranian group that provides weapons to Iraqi insurgents.

Iran's opponents may be demoralized

Peter Rodman
Former Pentagon Official
To have a discussion, particularly a high-visibility discussion with Iran about Iraq, gives Iran the kind of status, as if it is the arbiter of Iraq's future, which is the opposite of what we should be trying to do.

GWEN IFILL: Two views now on today's talks and where they might lead. Peter Rodman served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs until earlier this year. He's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And Cliff Kupchan is a director of the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis firm. He has served in the State Department and on the staff of the House International Relations Committee.

Mr. Rodman, were these talks today a good idea?

PETER RODMAN, The Brookings Institution: I have my doubts. I have not really opposed this kind of low-level talk in the past, but my expectations have been very low. And I think those expectations will be fulfilled. But there's a downside. Whenever you do something like this that has so much media attention and international attention, there's a risk you're taking.

GWEN IFILL: What's that risk?

PETER RODMAN: Well, several things. One is that, inside Iran, there are opponents of the regime who I think may be very demoralized if they see the United States apparently softening its posture toward the regime.

In Iraq, I think one of the things we want to do is reduce Iranian influence in Iraq. And to have a discussion, particularly a high-visibility discussion with Iran about Iraq, gives Iran the kind of status, as if it is the arbiter of Iraq's future, which is the opposite of what we should be trying to do.

And, third, in the region as a whole, I think our friends, our Arab friends, our Israeli friends are very nervous about Iran as a threat to the region. And I think they would be very unnerved if they saw our posture toward Iran as weakening in any respect.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kupchan, upsides? We just heard the downsides, are there any upsides to this meeting?

CLIFF KUPCHAN, The Eurasia Group: Well, I have a somewhat different take than Peter. I think this was not a breakthrough, but a really good first step.

The Iranians have been resistant to talking to the Americans. Not only have they talked today, but they proposed a second meeting and a trilateral security mechanism. Who knows what that means, but it could come to something.

But most importantly, I think, what's been going on right now, the U.S. has been imposing sanctions, the Iranians build another thousand centrifuges. Both sides have gotten into a very, very dangerous game of mutual abduction. So, in my view, the diplomatic system needs a shock. And I think that there's a chance diplomacy will break out now. Whether it will work or not, who knows? But I think it could be a very valuable shock to the system.

GWEN IFILL: Even though this is probably the first time we've had formal talks in three decades, there have been a lot of informal efforts, back channel efforts along the way. What makes today's talks different from that?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Because once the two sides -- and this is where, again, I think I have a slightly different take than Peter -- meet in public, they've got their feet in clay. And there are a lot of people in both countries that are going to have their expectations rising.

Now, I think that could create a dynamic -- again, it's a long shot -- but it could create a dynamic that stands a chance of getting us out of this mess.

Iran's concerns about Iraq

Cliff Kupchan
Former State Department Official
The greatest fear among many influential members of the Iranian leadership, ironically, is that the U.S. will, in fact, leave too soon.

GWEN IFILL: OK, let's go with the clay metaphor. Clay mud, clay hardens, mud doesn't.

PETER RODMAN: The problem with Iran is not a communications problem. The problem is of irreconcilable objectives. I mean, the things they want to do in Iraq -- they want to weaken Iraq, they want to weaken the United States, they have an aspiration, I think, to dominate the Gulf, that's the real heart of this problem. It's not going to be cured by a meeting.

At the same time, Cliff talks about raising expectations. I worry about that, because I think it -- as I say, it may unnerve a lot of friends of ours in the region who are counting on us to be strong against Iran. And, as I said, if they see us apparently investing a whole lot in dialogue and meetings and so on, which I think will be fruitless, I think they may worry about, you know, what is happening to our policy.

GWEN IFILL: Does Iran have any self-interest, in terms of security, in making sure that the sectarian violence in Iraq is tamped down at all? Do they have a vested interest in that?

PETER RODMAN: Well, a few years ago, I hoped that would be the case, because when we went into Iraq, it was not with the object of picking another fight with Iran. So this, you know, removing Saddam Hussein was a favor we did to them. So there was a possible convergence of interest.

But what we've seen is Iran taking the opposite tack. I mean, here's Iran, as you said in your piece, providing the most dangerous kinds of weapons that are killing Americans. We see Iran supporting radical groups among the Shia that are opposed to the kind of reconciliation we want to see in Iraq.

So I see an increasing divergence of objectives, and I think the best hope for dealing with that is to counter it on the ground and not to put too much hope in a meeting like this.

GWEN IFILL: Peter Rodman talks about the convergence of interests. What is the convergence of interests for the United States in a meeting like this, really?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: The convergence of interest is that Iran does not want to see Iraq fall apart. Look, when I've been in Tehran, when I've met with Iranian leaders behind closed doors, these guys are strategic in their thinking, the current president possibly withstanding that. They are quite Kissingerian, something that Peter knows a lot about.

The greatest fear among many influential members of the Iranian leadership, ironically, is that the U.S. will, in fact, leave too soon. They'll have a failed state on their hands. They'll have an al-Qaida-dominated Sunni triangle with a dagger pointed right at Iran. So I think the convergence of interests could become a controlled U.S. reduction of forces.

No discussion of nuclear issue

Peter Rodman
Former Pentagon Official
The problem, as I said, is not about communication. The problem is Iran's behavior. And Iran's actions on the ground unfortunately contradict the reassuring things they said in the meeting.

GWEN IFILL: But look what was not on the table today, nuclear -- the nuclear issue was not on the table.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: That's right.

GWEN IFILL: Iran's role in the larger region, involving Hamas and Hezbollah, was not on the table.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: That's right.

GWEN IFILL: So you think even a baby step, where they just agree to talk, is worth it?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Look, after 28 years, I think it's hard, in my view, to call this a baby step. I think this is a pretty big step.

But more to the point, this talk is not occurring in a vacuum. On Thursday, Ali Larijani, their chief nuclear weapons negotiator, will meet with the E.U. chief Javier Solana, and they will be talking about the nuclear issue.

Now, I think core to Iran's strategy will be to link the talks on Iraq, where they feel they've really got the U.S. under its thumb, to the nuclear issue. They will want concessions on the nuclear issue in return for the U.S. -- in return for them doing something to help us in Iraq.

Now, I doubt that will go over, but I think that's going to be the real show when it happens.

GWEN IFILL: And let me try another idea. Just before the meeting began today, apparently Nouri al-Maliki came in. He made a little statement about leaving the impression that Iraq would not be used as a launching point for any attacks presumably by the United States on Iran. Is that a significant starting-off point? Does that clear some distrusts in the room?

PETER RODMAN: Well, I'm willing to test this. We had this meeting. Ryan Crocker, who's a good professional, did not, as far as I can see, commit to another meeting. And yet, in his presentation there, he laid out some of the concerns we have and some of the things that Iran is doing that we object to.

So I'm willing to see if there is a change in Iran's behavior. We should take note of it. But as I say, I'm a skeptic here. I think Iran -- I think they think we asked for this meeting. They think we're kind of desperate and need their help. And so I think they're using this to strengthen their position in Iraq, and I don't expect a whole lot.

GWEN IFILL: Translate something for us laypeople here. Why didn't Ryan Crocker immediately embrace this notion of a second meeting after the Iraqis came out and said -- the Iranians came out and said, "Yes, we will meet again"?

PETER RODMAN: Well, the problem, as I said, is not about communication. The problem is Iran's behavior. And Iran's actions on the ground unfortunately contradict the reassuring things they said in the meeting.

I mean, when they talk about how they share our objective of a stable Iraq, they're doing a lot of things that are destabilizing Iraq. If that were to change, we would notice it, and it would be significant. But as I said, the test is their actions rather than their words.

Changing Iran's behavior

Cliff Kupchan
Former State Department Official
I do think that our best last chance -- and look, we're facing, let's be real clear. The two alternatives are binary. It is either a nuclear Iran or military action against Iran. Those are two pretty ugly choices.

GWEN IFILL: Given what you know, Mr. Kupchan, about the way the political situation is in Iran, how likely is it that their behavior will change in a way that will go beyond just being able -- just agreeing to meet at a table?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, I would agree with Peter in that I don't think anything's going to change soon. I don't think we're going to see...

GWEN IFILL: Soon meaning...

CLIFF KUPCHAN: The next few weeks, the next month. I don't think we're going to see a diminution of support for Shia militias; I don't think we're going to see them leaning hard on Muqtada al-Sadr to join the political process.

GWEN IFILL: Who interestingly resurfaced just before this meeting.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: He resurfaced. He's playing both sides against the middle. It's unclear what he's up to.

I don't think the Iranians are going to be very helpful any time soon. I do think that our best last chance -- and look, we're facing, let's be real clear. The two alternatives are binary. It is either a nuclear Iran or military action against Iran. Those are two pretty ugly choices.

So the main point here -- and I share Peter's skepticism -- is, as opposed to 2003, when the U.S. had what I think is a legitimate offer from Iran, didn't take it up, this has been a dance to the death for so long, now we finally have the two sides talking. We can't be naive about it. I don't think anything is going to happen quickly, but, finally, finally, diplomacy has a chance.

GWEN IFILL: What about this notion that we might be looking desperate?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think a confident superpower is a confident superpower, and a confident superpower can make an overture diplomatically, whenever it feels like it.

GWEN IFILL: And is that going to happen?

PETER RODMAN: Well, the Iranians have been spinning this as we needed their help, we are the supplicant. And that's not a good atmosphere in which to have a discussion.

But, as I said, I don't object to having this kind of a talk limited to Iraq, and it's a test. It's a way to see whether their behavior is going to imitate the words or reflect the words they're speaking.

GWEN IFILL: I guess I'm just trying to figure out who gets to define what happens next? Is it the Iranians, who are interested in making it clear that they want another meeting, and they want people to think that we're begging for one? Is it the United States, the confident world leader? Who gets to make the next step? Or who has to make the next step?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, I think it's up to the U.S. to respond, you know, in an approximate way to the Iranian offer. But as far as whether this goes anywhere or not, it's going to be up to both. The Iranians have to take verifiable steps, and the U.S. really has to be more interested in finding a compromise of sorts than it is to regime change in Iran.

GWEN IFILL: And do the sanctions that the president talks about, the stepped-up sanctions, is that an essential part of that?

PETER RODMAN: Well, that's about the nuclear diplomacy. I mean, this relates to Iraq. Cliff is right that there's some connection, but I think, in Iraq, if there is a true convergence of interest, I think Iranian actions will tell us that. And I would be more delighted than anybody to see a change in Iran's behavior in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Peter Rodman and Cliff Kupchan, thank you both very much.

PETER RODMAN: Thank you.