Steven R. Hurst and Qassim Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press Writers
BAGHDAD — The United States and Iran broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze Monday with a four-hour meeting about Iraqi security. The American envoy said there was broad policy agreement but that Iran must stop arming and financing militants who are attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi told The Associated Press that the two sides would meet again in less than a month. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Washington would decide only after the Iraqi government issued an invitation.
“We don’t have a formal invitation to respond to just yet, so it doesn’t make sense to respond to what we don’t have,” Crocker told reporters after the meeting.
The talks in the Green Zone offices of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were the first formal and scheduled meeting between Iranian and American government officials since the United States broke diplomatic relations with Tehran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy.
An AP reporter who witnessed the opening of the session said Crocker and Kazemi shook hands.
The American envoy called the meeting “businesslike” and said at “the level of policy and principle, the Iranian position as articulated by the Iranian ambassador was very close to our own.”
However, he said: “What we would obviously like to see, and the Iraqis would clearly like to see, is an action by Iran on the ground to bring what it’s actually doing in line with its stated policy.”
Speaking later at a news conference in the Iranian Embassy, Kazemi said: “We don’t take the American accusations seriously.”
Crocker declined to detail what Kazemi had said in the session, but the Iranian diplomat — formerly a top official in the elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force — said he had offered to train and equip the Iraqi army and police to create “a new military and security structure.”
Kazemi said U.S. efforts to rebuild those forces were inadequate to handle the chaos in Iraq, for which he said Washington bore sole responsibility.
He said he also offered to provide what assistance Iran could in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, which he said had been “demolished by the American invaders.”
The icebreaking session, according to both sides, did not veer into other difficult issues that encumber the U.S.-Iranian relationship — primarily Iran’s nuclear program and the more than a quarter-century history of diplomatic estrangement.
For its part, Iran’s Shiite theocracy fears the Bush administration harbors plans for regime change in Tehran and could act on those desires as it did against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Washington and its Sunni Arab allies are deeply unnerved by growing Iranian influence in the Middle East and the spread of increasingly radical Islam.
Compounding all that is Iran’s open hostility to Israel.
But the issues at hand in these first formal contacts portend a bruising set of talks — all other issues aside — should the two sides have follow-up meetings.
The Americans insist that Iran, specifically its Quds force, has been bankrolling, arming and training Iraqi militants, particularly the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Those men, who are deeply embedded in the Iraqi armed forces and police, are believed to make up the Shiite death squads that have pushed Baghdad into the violence and chaos that prompted the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown, now in its fourth month.
Beyond that, Iran is charged with sending into Iraq the deadly explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, the armor piercing roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers. Mahdi Army commanders have told AP that they receive those weapons from the Revolutionary Guards and that many of the militia’s foot soldiers have gone to Iran for training with the elite military force.
Kazemi and Crocker said the Iranians did not raise the subject of seven Iranians that were captured by the United States in Iraq. Five are still in U.S. custody.
“The focus of our discussions were Iraq and Iraq only,” Crocker said.
Just before 10:30 a.m., al-Maliki greeted the two ambassadors and led them into a conference room, where they sat across a long, glistening wood table from each other. Al-Maliki then made a brief statement before leaving.
He told both sides that Iraqis wanted a stable country free of foreign forces and regional interference. Iraq should not be turned into a base for terrorist groups, he said, adding that the U.S.-led forces in Iraq were only here to help rebuild the army, police and infrastructure.
The United States had no plans to launch a strike against Iran from Iraq, he said.
“We are sure that securing progress in this meeting would, without doubt, enhance the bridges of trust between the two countries and create a positive atmosphere” that would help them deal with other issues, he said.
After he left, the meeting moved to a second room where the delegations sat at three long tables draped in white cloth and put together in a triangular formation. National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie took charge of the Iraqi delegation.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the talks could lead to future meetings, but only if Washington admitted that its Middle East policy had failed.
“We are hopeful that Washington’s realistic approach to the current issues of Iraq — by confessing its failed policy in Iraq and the region and by showing a determination to changing the policy — guarantees success of the talks and possible further talks,” Mottaki said.
Crocker said he could not speculate whether future talks — even if they happened — would be raised to a higher-level, perhaps that of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mottaki.
One reporter asked Crocker if he had a meal with Kazemi during a break in the talks that ran over the lunch hour.
No, the veteran American Mideast hand said, a wry tone in his voice. “We drank tea together.”