BAGHDAD — Talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats over the future of Iraq are set for May 28 in Baghdad, officials said Thursday.
Both sides downplayed the chances of a breakthrough, however, and some observers cautioned that Washington had more riding on the outcome than did Tehran.
The meeting will mark the first major discussions between the nations since the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Iran enjoys strong ties with leading Shiite Muslim and Kurdish political parties in Iraq and has a strong trade relationship with its neighbor.
"Nothing but Iraq is on the agenda for Iran and U.S. talks," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters at a conference of Muslim foreign ministers in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Mottaki ruled out the possibility of the talks being widened to include the Islamic Republic's nuclear program or normalization of ties with Washington. The United States severed ties with Iran in 1980 after radical students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took Americans hostage.
"The talks will strictly be focused on the security situation in Iraq," Mottaki said, adding that Iraqis would also attend. He did not name the representatives for Tehran.
Iran wants the U.S. to release five Iranians arrested in Irbil, in northern Iraq, early this year.
The U.S. team is expected to air its allegation that Iran is supplying armor-piercing bombs to Shiite militias for use in attacking American troops. U.S. officials have also accused Iran of providing weapons to Shiite death squads and to Sunni Arab extremists, their rivals.
On Thursday, three American soldiers were killed and one was wounded when a roadside bomb struck their patrol south of Baghdad.
Their deaths brought to 3,403 the number of U.S. service members killed since the war began, according to the website icasualties.org, which monitors war-related deaths.
Mottaki reiterated Iran's claim that the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is a major cause of the continuing violence.
"Terrorists say that 'we are doing this because of the foreign forces,' and the foreign forces [are] saying that 'we are here because of the terrorist groups,' " Mottaki said.
Confirming the date of the talks, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tehran needed to start to live up to its promises regarding Iraq.
"They talk about the fact that they want a stable, secure, prosperous Iraq. Well, their actions are not lending -- are not helping with -- helping to produce a more stable, secure Iraq. So we'll see what they do," he told reporters.
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, will lead the American delegation. He told reporters in Baghdad: "I would not expect a stunning, startling breakthrough. We would like to see some progress on Iraq-related issues."
The groundwork for the talks was laid this month in Egypt at a conference on Iraq attended by diplomats from regional countries and the U.S.
That was a follow-up to a March gathering in Baghdad, where the U.S. and Iran exchanged pleasantries.
"There is an opportunity here for them, I think, to move into a whole new era in a relationship with a stable, secure, democratic Iraq that threatens none of its neighbors, including Iran," Crocker said. "But to get there, they need to start doing some more constructive things than they have."
"The real issue is how to stabilize [the] Iraqi government. The U.S. needs more from these meetings than Iran," said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Sami Askari, a Shiite member of Iraq's parliament and a confidant of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, said both sides had something to gain.
"We all know the Iranians have many issues to open with the Americans, from their frozen assets to their nuclear issue," Askari said.
"Both parties need the other," he said.
"But the Americans now need the Iranians to help them stabilize the country."
Underscoring the difficulties the talks face, President Bush on Thursday threatened further United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
One Iranian analyst was pessimistic about the chances for a true thaw.
"This meeting on May 28th is suffering from a lack of political will on both sides. The United States wants to exploit the talks ... for its own favor, and Iran hopes to delay the issuing of another sanctions resolution until further notice," said Abbas Abadi, a reformist.
On Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the country would use the talks to lecture the United States about its duties as an occupier of Iraq.
The U.S. and Iran worked together on Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003 under the umbrella of the U.N. Crocker was involved in those negotiations.
In early 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice authorized then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to hold talks with the Iranians. However, after initially endorsing the idea, Iran rejected the offer.