WASHINGTON – With American troops dug in for long stays in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has been holding unannounced talks with Iran, a country that shares long borders with both, officials said Monday.
The discussions began not long after the Afghan war started in the fall of 2001 and initially were largely limited to developments in Afghanistan. They have been expanded recently to include exchanges on Iraq, with which Iran fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.
The talks have been held in Geneva, under auspices of the United Nations.
"This is not somehow a new opening of diplomatic relations. This is an opportunity to deal with some practical issues," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.
The two countries broke diplomatic relations after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.
Iran has seemed inflexibly opposed to reopening normal relations, although Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's still-influential former president, raised eyebrows recently when he suggested a referendum on whether to improve relations with the United States.
Reeker said the United States has used the Geneva channel to reaffirm U.S. concerns about Iranian involvement with groups regarded as terrorist as well as the country's alleged development of weapons of mass destruction and its opposition to efforts to bring peace between the Israelis and the Arabs.
U.S. officials involved in the Geneva talks include Ryan Crocker, a top official in the State Department's Middle East Bureau; and Zalmay Khalilzhad, a White House diplomatic troubleshooter in the region.
On Iraq, American irritation with Iran grew from the ethnic Persian state's dispatch of Shiite militants into Arab Iraq to boost the fortunes of Iraqi Shiites as the post-Saddam transition proceeds.
For its part, Iran is worried that the United States may install an anti-Iranian administration in Baghdad.
On Afghanistan, the United States wants to keep political meddling in that country to a minimum. Iran has exerted influence in across its border in western Afghanistan for years.
The discussions in the Geneva channel fall far short of the new relationship that the former Clinton administration eagerly sought with Iran after the election of a moderate president in 1997.
Iran's conservative clerics, who are in charge of national security, rebuffed the U.S. overtures of that era, and President Bush has shown little interest in following up on his predecessor's initiative. He put Iran in the "axis of evil" camp with Iraq and North Korea in January 2002.
Except for technical discussion of the disposition of frozen assets, there had been no official meetings on political issues since the Islamic revolution of 1979 until the discussions in Geneva began.