BAGHDAD -- After weeks of hesitation, Iran announced yesterday that it would attend a conference this week in Egypt that is intended as a forum for Iraq's neighbors -- along with the United Nations, the United States and other world powers -- to establish a regional consensus on ways to stabilize Iraq.
Without Iran, Iraq's largest and most influential neighbor, it is unlikely that any serious progress could have been made. Topping the American agenda for the meeting is the U.S. allegation that Iran is helping fuel the violence in Iraq by facilitating the supply of weapons, money and sophisticated bomb-making techniques to insurgents.
The Iraqi government is trying to arrange a potentially groundbreaking meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the conference, Iraqi officials said yesterday.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraqi officials have been conducting a behind-the-scenes effort to persuade the U.S. and Iran -- Iraq's two chief allies but themselves bitter foes -- to schedule a bilateral meeting during the conference Thursday and Friday at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, and he said he is optimistic that the initiative will succeed.
"We expect a meeting between Iran and the U.S., and this might help us in Iraq," he said. "We are working hard to have this meeting, and we are optimistic it will happen."
Speaking on CNN's Late Edition yesterday, Rice did not rule out the possibility of holding a face-to-face meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, suggesting a thaw might soon be possible in the deeply hostile relationship between Iran and the United States.
"I don't rule out that we'll encounter each other," Rice said when asked whether a bilateral meeting was likely at the conference.
Iran had previously said it would not attend unless the United States released five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in Irbil in January, one of a series of events this year that sent tensions skyrocketing between the historic foes and triggered regional fears that a new war was imminent.
According to U.S. officials in Baghdad, Iraqi officials had been pressuring the United States to free the five detainees so that Iran would attend the conference. But Rice insisted the U.S. had made no promises to release the Iranians, who the U.S. claims are senior members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iran insists are diplomats.
"There was no guarantee. We've talked to the Iraqi government and informed them that the detainees will be dealt with in the normal course," she told CNN.
Shortly after the announcement that Iran would attend, Iran's chief national security official, Ali Larijani, arrived unexpectedly in Baghdad for three days of talks with Iraqi officials, focused on the conference agenda. The issue of a bilateral meeting with the United States is one of the items that will be discussed during the visit, said an aide to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The Iraqis are pushing for this and are optimistic it will happen. But it's still unofficial," the aide said. "Prime Minister Maliki is personally involved. Maliki has always said to the two countries, 'Take your problems outside Iraq,' and it would be to Iraq's advantage to have the two sides talking."
At present, Rice and Mottaki are scheduled to meet only in a group setting, and Iraq is the lone issue on the agenda. If a bilateral meeting does take place, the two will be free to discuss all issues dividing them, including the core problem of Iran's effort to acquire nuclear weapons, al-Dabbagh said.
"There will be no conditions, no agenda. The issue of Iraq will give them a platform to discuss any mutual issues, and we are optimistic we can manage that," he said. "This might help us in Iraq, because when relations are positive between Iran and the U.S., it will be positive for Iraq."
But the prospect of an Iranian-U.S. thaw may be wishful thinking on the part of Iraq. Iraq's Shiite-led government, which relies on U.S. support for its survival but also enjoys a close relationship with Iran, has watched with deep alarm as tensions have soared between its two closest friends, and it has made no secret of its hope that the two sides start talking.
The United States has since repeatedly said it won't talk directly to Iran unless it agrees to suspend its nuclear program, and Iran has said it won't talk to the United States unless it agrees to set a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, issues on which neither side has shown any inclination to compromise.
"The hostility between Iran and the U.S. is so huge and the issues that divide them are so big," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan. "There's the nuclear issue, the Iranian influence in Iraq, none of this can be decided at this conference."
Other regional rivalries also threaten to scuttle progress, as was illustrated last week when Saudi Arabia refused to accept a visit by al-Maliki. Iraq's Sunni neighbors are deeply unhappy with the Shiite government's close relationship with Shiite Iran and are threatening to withhold cooperation unless the government does more to accommodate the demands of Iraq's Sunni minority.
If a bilateral meeting does occur, it would mark a significant milestone in the relationship between Washington and Tehran. There has barely been any official contact between the two nations since the 1979 Iranian revolution brought to power a radical Islamist government, though numerous unofficial channels of communication have periodically emerged, including the Iran-contra effort to exchange arms for U.S. hostages during the 1980s.
In a rare instance of cooperation, Iran and the United States worked together with Afghanistan's neighbors to stabilize Afghanistan in the aftermath of the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, but those channels were severed after President Bush declared Iran a member of the "axis of evil" in 2002.
Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.