Monday, March 12, 2007

More Cheney-Rice choreography played out in Baghdad

A reporter for Al-Quds al-Arabi
says there was a four-way meeting on Saturday between the US, Iran, Syria and Britain, behind closed doors at the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone. This was sandwiched in the middle of the overall 16-party conference that was taking place that day. The reporter says the only delegations that weren't surprised at the speed with which the four agreed to a private meeting were Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which were in on the plan. The four-way meeting was preceeded by the well-publicized exchange of charges ("you're smuggling arms"; "you should set a withdrawal timetable"). The Al-Quds reporter doesn't put it this way, but it seems the idea of a four-way meeting was a solution to the standoff re Iran-talks between the Cheneyans and the Riceites, the former holding out for only "multilateral" contacts; the latter favoring direct talks. The Rashid Hotel meeting was arguably both.

There was another element that the Al-Quds reporter tells us about. When first approached about this plan, Iran said to the Iraqis: "Well what about our kidnapped diplomats that are still being held," but the Iraqis said unfortunately we aren't the people who can release them, and the Americans refuse to. The Iranians raised this ahead of the Rashid Hotel meeting, and the Americans said: We will release them when our investigation is complete. Here too, the Al-Quds reporter doesn't provide us with the explanatory key, but this was a pretty clear backup for Rice to justify talking to Iran, namely that we are prepared to talk to the Iranians now, because we are in a stronger position than before, for instance (in addition to the gunboats and so on) we actually hold some of their diplomats hostage.

As for what was talked about at the Rashid, the Al-Quds reporter says the main part of the talks was between the US and Iran, and had to do with supply of energy to Iraq and curtailing supply of arms and weapons. The British and Syrian representatives mostly listened. But one point the Syrians did make, the journalist says, is that they wanted some recognition for their efforts in dealing with the refugee problem. He implies that the decision to set up three working groups was made here, not at the main 16-party gathering.

By way of follow-up, the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA reports on a statement by Talabani's office to the effect Khalilzad (who visited Talabani in hospital in Amman to bring him up to date) said there will be bilateral talks in Washington at some point between Iran and the US. It remains to be seen if that will come to pass, and if it does how it will be choreographed in the Cheney-Rice context.


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