December 18, 2017

Iran, U.S. holding talks in Geneva

May 12, 2003
By Barbara Slavin

Iran’s Islamic government is debating re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States for the first time in 23 years and is holding secret talks with U.S. diplomats in Geneva on a range of issues, including the shape of a new government in Iraq, U.S. and Iranian diplomats say.

The Geneva discussions, due to resume next week, are headed on the U.S. side by Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, the diplomats say. A representative of the United Nations opens the talks but does not always stay, U.S. officials say. There have been three meetings this year, the most recent on May 3.

The sessions, which grew out of earlier multilateral discussions on Afghanistan, are the sort of direct, high-level talks with Iran the United States has sought for years. Though U.S. diplomats meet with representatives of Iran’s elected government, the talks have the explicit approval of Islamic clerics, who hold crucial decision-making power over Iran’s foreign policy.

The meetings come as debate heats up in the Bush administration over how to deal with a country that has considerable influence in Iraq, is said to be developing nuclear weapons and is a major supporter of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.

The Bush administration has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to declare Iran in violation of its nuclear non-proliferation pledges after discovery of an Iranian program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. But in a gesture toward Iran, U.S. forces in Iraq on Saturday began disarming the Mujahedin e-Khalq, an Iraq-based organization that violently opposes the Islamic government in Tehran.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was in the Middle East on Saturday to try to restart Arab-Israeli peace talks, confirmed that a dialogue with Iran was taking place but said restoration of formal relations was not on the horizon.

“The issue of diplomatic relations is not on the table right now for either side,” Powell said. “But in terms of communicating with the Iranians, we have such ways, and we use them on a regular basis.”

Although it is proceeding with talks, the Bush administration is divided over how to approach Iran. Some officials within the Pentagon and vice president’s office see Iran as the next target for U.S.-backed regime change and are reluctant to shore up clerical rule there. Others, primarily in the State Department and National Security Council, regard contacts with Iran’s existing government as necessary to restore stability in Iraq and make headway toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

“The debate is taking place both in Iran and the United States,” says an Iranian diplomat who asked not to be named. “We are ready to discuss re-establishing relations on the basis of mutual respect, equal footing and seriousness.”

Last week, more than half the Iranian parliament — 154 of 290 members — issued a statement calling on the Foreign Ministry to restore relations with the United States. Opinion polls show more than 70% of Iran’s 70 million people favor restoring ties cut by the United States in 1980 after Iranian students seized U.S. embassy hostages.

Moderates within the regime have favored restoring relations but have been stymied by hard-line clerics who regard the United States as Iran’s chief ideological foe. That balance may be changing, however, as a result of the U.S. toppling of governments on either side of Iran, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last month, after the fall of Baghdad, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is close to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggested holding a referendum on re-establishing ties with the United States. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was quoted by Iran’s news service last week as saying, “Iran wants to expand its relations with all countries, even with America.”