President Bush's top foreign policy adviser said Friday that Iran's new willingness to talk about Iraq with the United States is probably a ploy designed to "divert pressure and divert attention" from international concern that Tehran wants a nuclear bomb.
The United States has accused Iran of using a civilian nuclear program as a cover to build atomic weapons, an allegation Tehran denies. The U.N. Security Council is expected to discuss Iran's nuclear program this month, with Washington pressing for penalties.
The Bush administration views Tehran's acceptance of an American offer to talk about Iraq, made months ago, as an indication that Iran is feeling the international heat, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said.
"What is interesting is that the Iranians would choose now, at this moment, in such a very public way, to embrace this idea and try to expand it to a negotiation about a broader set of issues," Hadley said.
"The concern, therefore, is that it is simply a device by the Iranians to try and divert pressure that they're feeling in New York, to try and drive a wedge between the United States and the other countries with which we are working on the nuclear issue and, if you will, divert pressure and divert attention."
Hadley added: "Obviously, this is something that we and those who are working with us on these issues will not let happen."
The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, said Thursday that Iran would discuss Iraq directly with the United States. Washington has accused Tehran of meddling in Iraqi politics and of supporting armed militias in Iraq by sending men and weapons, including components for increasingly lethal roadside bombs.
There was concern Friday in the Bush administration that the Iranian offer could increase the stature of Iran's government in its citizens' eyes, raise Tehran's status in the region and curry broader international sympathy that could undermine the U.N. Security Council efforts.
For that reason, there was also skepticism that talks would even take place.
"They've made such statements in the past that they would be open to talking about the matters in Iraq," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "We'll have to see."
The administration is proceeding with discussions about a meeting on the chance that it could save lives — as well as out of concern that the administration would be criticized if it didn't try, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomatic situation.
Earlier this week, Bush said Iran had supplied components for roadside bombs, which the president called the greatest threats to U.S. troops in Iraq.
But officials made clear that any talks with Iran would be given as low-key a status as possible, in an effort to defuse any broader benefit Iran might gain. The Bush administration is also sensitive to possible criticism that talks with Iran represent negotiating with terrorists.
The American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, in charge of discussions on the talks, said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press that any meeting should be held in Baghdad. He also made clear that discussions would be limited only to issues related to Iraq, not the standoff over Tehran's nuclear activities, and would represent merely a face-to-face forum for the United States to state concerns it has expressed publicly.
"This is not a negotiation by any means," McClellan said.