CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News who now covers the State Department.
So infrequent are diplomatic contacts between the Bush administration and the governments of Iran and Syria that it was major news this week when Iraq announced it would host a regional conference at which American officials would sit at the same table with their counterparts from Tehran and Damascus. That the administration is going to have at least some direct, high-level diplomatic engagement with these two governments may or may not be a big policy shift, but it should be seen as a positive development.
The Iraqis say the meeting, scheduled to take place in Baghdad on March 10, will focus on how its immediate neighbors and others can help them in reconstruction and stabilization of their country. A follow-up meeting is anticipated and could be held somewhere in the region — State Department officials say it could take place as early as April. While envoy-level officials will represent their governments for the Baghdad meeting, it is the second gathering, which will be attended by foreign ministers, that is drawing more attention.
Should it be such a big deal that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sits down at the same table as Iran's foreign minister? No, it should not. But the fact that even this minor diplomatic contact is such an uncommon occurrence is not a good sign, especially when the two countries have so many issues that divide them. Any opening, no matter how small, that offers the possibility of leading to dialogue and away from confrontation is worth pursuing.
With administration officials already making some progress in the early stages of negotiations with North Korea, the other remaining member of President Bush's "axis of evil," there is a lot of talk about a policy shift under way in Washington — something senior administration officials deny.
"What you have to understand is this didn't happen overnight. These policies (to put pressure on North Korea and Iran) have been put in place over a period of years," says State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "We've laid the diplomatic groundwork over a period of years, and now you are seeing the administration in a position to be able to reap some of the benefits of the diplomatic groundwork that has been laid over the course of time."
Clearly, there is some basis for this argument. It is also true, however, that pressure has been building on the Bush administration from several directions. The basic idea for a conference involving Iraq's neighbors and others has been discussed for some time and has been favored by the administration. But European allies have also been pushing Washington to engage, especially with Iran, and the report last December of the Iraq Study Group strongly encouraged a diplomatic initiative towards Iran and Syria. More direct political pressure to engage has come from Democrats. Whether it is the administration's own policies seeing a payoff or outside pressure that has led to this possible diplomatic opening is almost beside the point.
The fact is we have seen this sort of basic contact before. At the United Nations last September, Secretary Rice attended a meeting on Iraq that was also attended by Iran's foreign minister. And in 2004, former Secretary of State Colin Powell did the same. He was seated next to an Iranian official during a meeting in Egypt, also on Iraq. A few years ago, American and Iranian diplomats had frequent contacts over the formation of a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.
The question now is whether Washington can find a way to move to the next level and develop some sort of sustained diplomatic contact, i.e. negotiations, with Tehran and Damascus, from what is expected to be minor diplomatic contact. McCormack told reporters he wouldn't "exclude any particular diplomatic interaction" happening on the sidelines of the meetings. That doesn't mean we should expect the two sides to start serious discussions during these meetings, but it does leave the door open for more substantive diplomacy. Meanwhile, as these next moves play out, the Bush administration continues to apply pressure, especially on Iran, by working towards a second Security Council sanctions resolution.
By Charles M. Wolfson