WASHINGTON – The United States is pursuing a two-track strategy with Iran that reflects the high stakes in any engagement with a nation President Bush accuses of bankrolling terrorism and secretly building a nuclear bomb.
Today’s talks in Baghdad are one element. Discussion between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors is only supposed to cover Iraq, where they have competing and overlapping interests.
Then there are the U.S. Navy’s exercises in the Persian Gulf last week and tough talk from Bush about new U.N. penalties against Tehran.
“In the American mind, the two tracks sort of complement each other,” with the muscle-flexing and threats serving to push Iran to the bargaining table, said Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Iran only sees one track” and thinks it is a trap, Takeyh said. He does not hold out much hope the diplomats will get beyond talking points today.
“The coercive track is undermining and negating the diplomatic track and preventing any sort of meaningful discussions,” Takeyh said.
The Baghdad talks are the first of their kind and a small sign that Washington thinks rapprochement is possible after nearly three decades of animosity. Iran, angry over the blunt show of U.S. military power off its coast, almost refused to come.
Bush agreed to the dialogue in hopes it could do some good inside Iraq and perhaps beyond. Despite ambivalence within the Bush administration, U.S. diplomats hope this kind of limited conversation can build confidence on both sides and lead to something more substantive.
There is plenty to talk about, even within the confines both sides have laid out.
The United States accuses Iran of supplying Iraqi Shiite militias with deadly roadside bombs that kill American troops in Iraq and of political meddling in Shiite-led Iraq.
Iran accuses the U.S. of improperly seizing five Iranians in Iraq this spring. The U.S. military is holding the five. Iran says they are diplomats; Washington contends they are intelligence agents.
The U.S. also has complained about the detention or arrest of several Iranian-Americans in Iran in recent weeks. Casey said that issue is not on the U.S. agenda today.
Iran contended Saturday it had uncovered spy rings operating inside the country that were organized by the U.S. and its Western allies. The White House said it does not confirm or deny allegations about intelligence matters. However it might affect the talks, the allegation reflects a toughening of Iran’s stand.
On Sunday, Iran summoned the Swiss ambassador in protest and demanded “necessary explanation” about the claims, Iran’s state television reported. Switzerland represents American interests in Iran.