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U.S. May Seek Tehran's Help on Iraq

Officials are debating direct contact with Iran in an effort to defeat insurgents and stabilize Baghdad's government, Rice tells senators.

October 20, 2005|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the Bush administration was considering opening direct contact with Iran as part of an effort to gain greater cooperation from neighboring countries in quelling Iraq's insurgency.

"We're considering whether that might be useful," Rice said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She added that any contact probably would take place between embassies in Baghdad and would be restricted to the Iraq issue.

Direct U.S. diplomatic contact with Tehran would be highly controversial within the Bush administration, which is divided on the issue. U.S. administrations have shunned Iran since students there stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Rice's comments came during the course of a three-hour grilling in which committee Republicans and Democrats voiced concern about the course of the war and indicated growing skepticism about the administration's claims of success.

Senators seemed unconvinced when Rice pointed to signs of progress and outlined a counter-insurgency strategy to secure Iraq while building what she called "truly national institutions."

At one point, Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island said the United States had yet to accomplish three of five conditions set by President Bush for ending the U.S. military presence in Iraq: improving security, rebuilding the infrastructure and gaining more international support for the Iraqi government.

Two of Bush's goals, returning sovereignty to Iraqis and holding the country's first national election, have been met.

Rice responded that international support for Iraq was growing and that progress had been made.

Chafee responded, "Well, we all wish that were true, but we can't kid ourselves, either."

As one sign of progress, Rice cited "measurably improved" security along one of the most dangerous roads in the country, the highway that connects Baghdad with its international airport. According to figures from the U.S. military in Baghdad, no injuries or deaths had been recorded on that road since July 1. Eleven people died and 25 were injured on it between March and July.

Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) asked Rice to sketch out the administration's strategy for reaching the point when a significant reduction in U.S. troop levels might be possible.

"The American people need to more fully understand the basis upon which our troops are likely to come home," Lugar said.

Rice repeatedly refused to set any deadline for a withdrawal of American forces. At one point, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) asked whether U.S. troops might still be in Iraq in 10 years.

"Senator, I don't know how to speculate about what will happen 10 years from now," Rice said.

Opponents of U.S. contacts with Iran argue that any such relationship would legitimize the Islamic fundamentalist government and undercut opposition groups. Others believe engagement would soften Iran's anti-U.S. positions and eventually work in Washington's favor.

The Bush administration has only indirect contacts with Tehran, such as third-party contacts through Swiss officials in Geneva, said a senior State Department official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

After its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, which, like Iraq, borders Iran, the United States worked with nations in the region to rebuild that country and establish a functioning government in Kabul. That effort began in late 2001, first involving Bush's special envoy for Afghanistan, James Dobbins, and later Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad is now the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Dobbins, who is now director of the Rand Corp. International Security and Defense Policy Center in Washington, said Rice's comments "demonstrate commendable realism."

"Iraq can't be stabilized without the active cooperation of its neighbors," he said in a telephone interview.

Dobbins said Iran, which played a constructive role in helping to stabilize Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001, and the United States had "convergent interests" in Iraq.

Iran, whose enemy Saddam Hussein was toppled by the American-led invasion, is eager to see the new U.S.-sponsored, Shiite-majority government survive. "The Iranians are the second-most important supporters of the government in Baghdad," Dobbins said.

Rice's comments about Iran came during questioning about administration efforts to increase support in the region for the new government in Baghdad. Rice indicated that Saudi Arabia had helped persuade some Sunni factions to support last Saturday's referendum on a draft constitution.

She also said the administration was exerting diplomatic pressure on Syria to halt a trail of foreign insurgents that she said passed through Damascus International Airport and crossed the border into Iraq.

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