IN WHAT AMOUNTS TO a welcome about-face for the Bush administration, the United States will sit down next month to discuss Iraqi security with Iran and Syria. The discussions, called by the Iraqi government and to be held in Baghdad, also will include Britain, Russia and other Middle Eastern countries. They will mark the first time U.S. diplomats have engaged their Syrian or Iranian counterparts in three years.
President Bush has been under increasing pressure to drop his refusal to talk to these adversaries, pressure that mounted with the release of the Iraq Study Group report in December. As group Co-Chairman James A. Baker III and others have repeatedly noted, Washington engaged the Soviet "evil empire" during the Cold War and these negotiations were no sign of U.S. weakness.
The Baghdad talks will hardly amount to high-powered summitry, though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be attending a subsequent ministerial gathering elsewhere in the region. The Bush administration has been arguing that Iran is sending weapons and agents into Iraq, so it makes sense to have a forum in which to raise and resolve these concerns. It's fair to assume that the discussions with Tehran, much like the ongoing low-grade hostility between U.S. troops and Iranian agents, will initially be confined to Iraq. That is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if some basic understandings, and a reservoir of trust, can be established.
The administration clearly has little choice but to engage Iraq's neighbors on security. Especially now that the U.S. military is recommitting troops to the battle for Baghdad and U.S. allies are pulling out of the country, there are insufficient coalition forces to protect the Iraqi border. And regardless of how the "surge" strategy plays out, any future reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq will be more palatable if the nation's borders are secure and its neighbors feel invested in Iraq's stability.
Bush and Rice also may have felt that this was a good time to announce talks without appearing weak, given broader developments in the Persian Gulf region. Events within Iraq may not be going well, but the U.S. Navy has been flexing its muscles in the region. Moreover, U.S. diplomacy has helped to win a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing Iran's nuclear program, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be in some political trouble with the ruling mullahs in Tehran, partly because of his perceived recklessness.
This would seem, then, a good time to explore whether Tehran might become a more constructive partner in bringing about stability in neighboring Iraq -- a stability that would be in its own self-interest, after all. And such a development could lead to a constructive dialogue on other issues. There would be no harm in finding out.