SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt — SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt -- American and Iranian officials met briefly yesterday on the sidelines of a high-level diplomatic summit in an encounter that was played down by U.S. officials but which illustrated growing contact between the two countries.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not sit down for talks. But Rice's senior adviser on Iraq, David M. Satterfield, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, met briefly with an Iranian deputy minister.
Their three-minute encounter was "an opportunity to exchange views about the substance of this meeting, which is how to help Iraq be more secure," said Rice.
Crocker played down the talk, saying it was "not substantive," but was the kind of casual exchange U.S. officials had with officials of other countries at the two-day meeting here.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari described the encounter as "a positive sign."
"This is a process. It needs more work," he told reporters toward the end of the summit meeting here on Iraq's future. "There's a lot of suspicion. There's a lot of mistrust."
Delegates from 60 countries participated in the summit at this Red Sea resort, discussing ways to curb violence in Iraq and agreeing on an economic aid package that included billions of dollars in debt relief.
Beyond soothing rhetoric, however, the officials offered little by way of concrete solutions for Iraq's problems. Instead, the conference was largely overshadowed by speculation about Rice's willingness to meet with countries the Bush administration has shunned.
Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem on Thursday for a half-hour conversation - the first meeting of the two countries' top diplomats in more than three years.
The new U.S. approach is significant because the administration has mostly sought to limit high-level contacts with adversary governments, believing that it should isolate rather than reward them for what it considers objectionable behavior.
U.S. officials hope that the new contacts will lay the groundwork for other meetings with Syria and Iran. They said they will seek further talks if the sessions can be useful in meeting Iraq's needs. "The object is to help stabilize and assist Iraq. ... The neighbors have a role in that," Crocker said.
Yesterday, Rice told reporters that the occasion to meet with the Iranians had not presented itself during the two-day conference, but that "I would have taken that opportunity."
Rice and her Iranian counterpart exchanged courteous greetings at Thursday's lunch, and U.S. officials said they thought the two might meet again later that day during a dinner. But the Iranian minister abruptly left the dinner about the time that Rice arrived.
The next day, officials from both countries said that Mottaki's early departure had not been prompted by Rice's arrival but that his religious sensibilities had been offended because Larissa Abramova, the violinist entertaining the dinner party, was wearing a red sleeveless dress only partly covered by a shawl.
Taunting American officials suggested that Mottaki had been uneasy about the prospect of facing Rice at the dinner. "I am not sure which woman he was afraid of: the woman in the red dress or the secretary of State," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Rice and her aides did not say what issues Satterfield and Crocker raised in their brief conversation with the Iranians, but U.S. officials have charged Iran with supplying weapons technology to fighters in Iraq.
Iranian officials have denied that. "Washington should not be so irresponsible and constantly accuse others," Mottaki said.
The final diplomatic statement from the meetings here finessed the sensitive issue of a timetable for withdrawing troops.
The communique called for nations to assist Iraq's security forces, pointing out that their greater capability will "pave the way for the conclusion of the multinational forces, whose presence will not be open-ended."
Louise Roug and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.