Bush, Iran, Syria Talks Stunning Flip

In a stunning reversal of hardline foreign policy, the Bush administration has announced it will engage in diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria in an effort to stabilize Iraq.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the policy back flip at a hearing of the US Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, which is considering the Bush administration’s request for $100 billion to continue its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think that it’s an acknowledgment of reality. It’s in effect a move toward a foreign policy less based on ideal outcomes and more based on realistic possibility,” former US diplomat James Dobbins told Reuters. “It’s long been the view of most area experts that one isn’t going to be able to stabilize Iraq unless one secures a modicum of support from the neighboring states. They simply have too much access, too much influence and too much at stake themselves in Iraq’s future to be ignored.”

Dr Rice confirmed that “Prime Minister Maliki believes and President Bush and I agree that success in Iraq requires the positive support of Iraq’s neighbors”.

The diplomatic summits have been organized by the Iraqi government, with the support of the White House. Envoys attending the first meeting scheduled for March 10 in Baghdad will include representatives of Iraq’s immediate neighbors Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey as well as the five permanent members of the UN National Security Council (United States, Britain, France, China and Russia). A second ministerial-level meeting in April will be attended by Dr Rice and will be expanded to include top diplomats from Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan.

Dr Rice openly conceded that pressure from critics in the new Democrat-controlled Congress prompted the Bush administration to reconsider the diplomatic option to help stabilize Iraq. “This is one of the key findings, of course, of the Iraq Study Group and it is an important dimension that many in the Senate and in the Congress have brought to our attention,” she said. “We’ve had conversations about the importance of doing this, and we’ve listened, and I want you to know that.”

Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is not yet convinced that the Bush administration’s sudden about-face will evolve into an effective diplomatic strategy in the Middle East. “Democrats and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group have made clear for months that America must be willing to talk with all major nations in the region, including Iran and Syria, if we are ever to find the necessary political solution in Iraq,” said Senator Reid in a statement. “Today’s announcement is a first step, but it is not enough on its own.”

In January, President Bush rejected the ISG recommendation to establish diplomatic dialogue with Iran and Syria because he said they sponsor terrorism and foment sectarian violence in Iraq. Several US allies in the Middle East are also becoming increasingly concerned at Iran’s growing influence in the region. Mr Bush himself has had only acrimonious public dialogue with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map and recently hosted a conference in Tehran where delegates denied the Holocaust and thus the importance of Israel as a Jewish sanctuary.

President Bush also believes that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons and supplying Shiite insurgents with explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and other sophisticated weapons used to kill US forces in Iraq. The US has long insisted that Iran must halt its uranium enrichment activities as a precondition for diplomatic talks, and recently led the charge to level international sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear program. Iran has just missed another IAEA deadline to halt its uranium enrichment and has defiantly vowed to continue its nuclear program, which it says is for peaceful purposes. It is understood that the US will not bring up the nuclear issue at the forthcoming meetings which include Iran, in order to focus on stabilizing Iraq.

“These meetings, the first one in Baghdad, will focus on Iraq”, said State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack at a recent press briefing. “And I’m sure that there are going to be different kinds of discussions, meaning different groupings. Again, I’m not going to exclude any particular interaction at this point in that forum at the regional level on issues that are important to us, but the focus will be on Iraq.”

The new diplomatic initiative is but one component of the Bush administration’s overhauled Iraq policy, and is part of a greater overall effort to defuse tensions in the Middle East. “Our diplomatic offensive [is] to build greater support both within the region and beyond for peace and prosperity in Iraq,” said Dr Rice. “We are recommitting ourselves to the security and stability of the Gulf region.”

Dr Rice also acknowledged the widely held belief that the Bush administration had been fixated on a military solution for stabilizing Iraq. She told the hearing that there is a new US emphasis on reconstruction and economic development, and that she had recently urged Prime Minister al-Maliki to press ahead with political reforms that promote national reconciliation in Iraq as a matter of priority.

“Far from just a military campaign, our efforts in Iraq are moving forward on all fronts at the same time: security, political, economic and diplomatic,” said Dr Rice.

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