WASHINGTON – The United States has accepted an Iraqi proposal to hold new talks with Iran about the security situation in Iraq, the State Department said Tuesday.
The as-yet unscheduled meeting would be the third round of talks between Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, and his Iranian counterpart. Two previous sessions ended inconclusively with Iran rejecting U.S. allegations that Iran is supporting Shiite insurgent groups in Iraq by providing bomb-making material responsible for the deaths of American troops.
Amid a decline in attacks involving such devices, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington had responded favorably to a suggestion from the Iraqi government that it was now "the appropriate time" for another meeting at the ambassadorial level in Baghdad.
"We said `yes,' that we would agree to that," he told reporters, adding that the United States had informed Iran of its acceptance through diplomatic channels that normally involve Swiss intermediaries.
"We have communicated to the Iranian government that we are agreeable to that," McCormack said. "We have not yet received back a reply, either directly or via the Iraqis."
"We are open to using this channel as a way of talking directly about important issues concerning security in Iraq. We don't yet have a date, and as soon as I am aware of a date, I'll try to convey that to you," he said.
In the Iranian capital Tehran on Tuesday, the state news agency IRNA reported that Iran also accepted the offer for new continued talks with the United States and that Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had welcomed the opportunity.
"Iran will give a positive response to this request," Mottaki was quoted as saying by IRNA, adding that the talks will be "in the near future. These talks ... are held within the framework of helping Iraqi stability and security and its people."
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government welcomed the agreement by the United States and Iran, although it said no date has been set for the meeting.
"The Iraqi government hopes that the new round of talks among the three countries will be fruitful and yield tangible steps that lead to mutual understanding," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a brief statement.
He said the meeting would help the security and stability of Iraq plus reduce tensions in the region.
The developments came against a background of U.S. military reports that violence is down 55 percent in Iraq since a U.S.-Iraqi security operation began several months ago.
Iran has long been accused by Washington of training, arming and financing Shiite extremists inside Iraq to kill American troops. But in recent weeks, U.S. officials have said Tehran appears to have halted the flow of arms across its border into Iraq.
Iran has denied the arms-funneling accusations, insisting that it is doing its best to help stabilize its embattled western neighbor.
Mottaki said Iran's consent for a fourth round of talks followed an official U.S. request Tehran received through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which looks after American interests in the absence of U.S. relations with the Islamic republic.
McCormack denied that the United States had proposed the meeting but had responded to Iraq's request through the Swiss.
Relations between the United States and Iran were broken after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and takeover by militants of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The revolution overthrew the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed a hard-line Islamic government.
Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi have held three rounds of talks in Baghdad since May on Iraq but made little apparent headway.
The first round in May broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze between Iran and the United States. Crocker and Qomi agreed during their July talks to set up a security subcommittee to carry forward talks on restoring stability in Iraq.
The subcommittee met in August for the first time in Baghdad and agreed to meet again at a later date but no more information is available on the outcome of those talks.
Iran has also accused the United States of providing "support for veteran (militant) elements and giving terrorists a free hand in specific locations in Iraq."
Tehran insists that it supports Nouri al-Maliki's government to establish security and bring stability to Iraq, an apparent reference to the political crisis surrounding the Shiite leader.
Iran holds considerable sway in Iraq, where the majority of the population also are Shiite Muslims and where Shiite political parties have close ties to Tehran.