CAIRO – The United States is willing to talk to Iran so long as the conversations are limited to Iraq, a spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday. Cheney is visiting the region to try to encourage more support for the Iraqi government.
"We are willing to have that conversation limited to Iraq issues at the ambassador level," said Lea Anne McBride. She said the willingness is not a new position, but reflects an earlier-stated U.S. position.
She spoke after Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said that Tehran has agreed to a formal request from the U.S. to talk about security in Iraq during meetings in Baghdad, the country's official news agency reported.
The report said Iran had received the request through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which often acts as an intermediary for the U.S. in the country.
McBride said she didn't have all the specifics. But she said Iran's comments appeared to be a reference to what the U.S. has called "the Baghdad channel."
"Iran has agreed to this (negotiation) after consultation with Iraqi officials, in order to lessen the pain of the Iraqi people, support the Iraqi government and establish security and peace in Iraq," the Iranian agency quoted Mohammad Ali Hosseini, spokesman of Iran's foreign ministry, as saying.
The report said the negotiations would be held in Baghdad.
Cheney was in Cairo on Sunday to hold a short round of talks on the future of Iraq with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key American ally in the region. Cheney is trying to shore up support amid growing skepticism across the Arab world toward the effectiveness of the Bush administration's military buildup in Iraq.
Cheney is on a mission to persuade moderate Arab states to do more to support the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He came here from Aqaba, Jordan, and was returning to Jordan after the meeting.
The vice president was also seeking to counter growing Iranian influence across the region.
Washington accuses Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but Tehran insists that the program is only intended for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity.
Cheney, on Friday, addressing U.S. forces on an aircraft carrier about 150 miles from the Iranian coast, warned Iran that the U.S. and its allies would prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons and dominating the region.
In response to Cheney's comments, Hosseini on Sunday accused Washington of spreading fear in the Middle East.
In Cairo, at a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace, Mubarak and Cheney discussed the weather before heading behind closed doors to discuss more substantive matters.
"It's unusual weather for May, very, very hot," said the longtime Egyptian president.
"I usually come in August," said Cheney.
"Yes," said Mubarak, "you've been here many times."
The United States has praised Mubarak, who just turned 79 and is serving his fifth six-year term, for hosting a conference on Iraq earlier this month at Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort at the tip of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. That session brought together representatives of the U.S., Iran and Syria.
The U.S. and Iran had sounded interested in meeting at the summit, but the only direct contact came in a chat between two lower-ranking officials.
Cheney planned to return to Jordan later Sunday, ending his weeklong trip to the Middle East with talks with Jordan's King Abdullah. He flies home to Washington on Monday. The trip has also taken him to Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and to the carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf to rally troops.