WASHINGTON – It would take a major policy shift for the Bush administration to expand its sporadic dialogue with two old foes, Iran and Syria, as the Iraq study commission is expected to recommend.
The bipartisan panel appears convinced that reaching out to Iran and Syria could help stabilize neighboring Iraq, and improve chances for easing overall Middle East tensions by boosting the prospects for an Arab-Israeli settlement.
The White House has said it would consider talking to Iran and Syria if the Iraq Study Group makes that recommendation. Administration officials have also dropped hints that they might be willing to hold talks with Iran restricted to curbing violence in Iraq.
Yet the administration's overall tone has been one of skepticism about reaching accommodation with Tehran and Damascus. It has long accused both countries of stirring up trouble in the region, and it confronts both of them on issues besides Iraq.
With the Iraq report due for release Wednesday, administration officials continue to accuse Iran and Syria of arming and otherwise supporting insurgents in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. They insist there is nothing to be gained by rewarding Iran and Syria with high-profile discourse with American diplomats.
"If diplomatic engagement serves a broader strategy in moving Iran, that is something we will consider," said David Satterfield, top State Department adviser on Iraq, in a recent AP Television News interview.
But he added, "What is critical is actions on the part of the Iranian government. The only actions we have seen from Tehran have been negative ones."
Satterfield expressed similar doubts about Syria, saying, "We don't believe engagement will serve a useful purpose in the absence of substantive changes by the Syrian government."
On Sunday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said on "Face the Nation" on CBS, "Asking Iran and Syria to help us succeed in Iraq is about like your local fire department asking a couple of arsonists to help put out the fire."
By contrast, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said on CNN's "Late Edition" that he supported a multinational Mideast conference including Iran and Syria, "because nothing will hold unless you begin to resolve those differences."
The Bush administration's differences with Iran include a demand that Tehran suspend development of nuclear weapons — a goal Iran denies it is pursuing — before the U.S. will join European-led talks that offer Iran economic inducements to halt its nuclear program.
The U.S. also wants Iran to cease its support for Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and other groups designated as terrorist by the State Department.
Iran and the United States have not had formal relations since fundamentalist revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held Americans captive for 444 days. Successive U.S. administrations have harbored hopes that a more moderate leadership would emerge in Iran.
Relations have soured since the Sept. 11 attacks and President Bush's inclusion of Iran in an "axis of evil" with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They have only worsened since hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office last year, with confrontations over his calls for Israel's destruction and Tehran's nuclear efforts.
Richard Perle, a former U.S. official who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said last week that if the Iraq panel called for talks with Iran and Bush took the advice, "It will be seen throughout the region as an indication of American weakness."
"The Iranians are fundamentally on the other side on Iraq and nothing we can say or do will change that," Perle said in an interview.
On the other hand, Robert Gates, Bush's choice to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004, "Direct dialogue with Tehran on specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued."
Over the years, while keeping their distance from Tehran, succeeding U.S. administrations have worked with Syria to promote peace with Israel.
But relations between Washington and Damascus have remained cool, largely because Syria views the U.S. as pro-Israel and Syria supports Islamic extremist groups.
Tensions worsened after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, with the Bush administration charging that Syria was letting insurgents cross its border into Iraq to fight coalition troops.
Bush has focused on curtailing Syria's domination of Lebanon. And State Department spokesman Tom Casey called last week for an end to "its well-known support for Palestinian rejectionist groups as well as other terrorist organizations," which include the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in February 2005 after the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. A U.N. investigation has implicated top Syrian officials, but President Bashar Assad has denied Syrian involvement.