WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not ruling out direct talks with Iranian officials at a conference this week on Iraq, though Tehran's nuclear program probably would not come up.
At the regional meeting beginning Thursday in Egypt, Iraq is seeking support for its neighbors for helping in reining in sectarian violence. Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, is expected to lead his country's delegation. Iran agreed Sunday that it would attend the conference.
"This isn't an opportunity to talk about U.S.-Iran issues," said Rice, who acknowledged the possibility of talks with the Iranians. "This is really an opportunity for all of Iraq's neighbors to talk about how to stabilize Iraq.
"Everyone has said that they believe a stable Iraq is in their interests. Not everyone is acting as if a stable Iraq is in their interests, and I think we want to talk about how we can all take actions and Iraq's neighbors can take actions to help the Iraqis secure themselves," Rice said.
The Bush administration contends Iran is funding and arming the Shiite militias that are responsible for much of Iraq's violence. Baghdad's Shiite-led Iraqi government has struggled to keep good relations with Iran while not angering the United States.
Washington severed diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Although there have been periodic diplomatic contacts, the administration has resisted pressure at home and abroad to engage Iran directly in an effort to improve security in neighboring Iraq.
Asked what she would say to the Iranian foreign minister if they met, Rice said: "If in fact everybody believes a secure Iraq is important, then we need to stop the flow of foreign fighters. We need to stop the help to militias that then go out and kill innocent Iraqis. We need to stop the flow of advanced IED (improvised explosive devices) technology, explosive device technology that's killing American soldiers."
The secretary played down the prospect of discussions involving Iran's disputed nuclear program.
"The proper channel" for such talks, she said, is through the European Union's foreign and security affairs chief, Javier Solana, who is representing the nations "that have made Iran a very generous offer concerning the development of civil nuclear power."
Rice also said the U.S. made no guarantee to Iran about the release of five Iranian officials detained in Iraq in exchange for Tehran's participation in the Iraqi conference.
"There is a normal process for dealing with detainees and we'll deal with these detainees in that normal process," Rice said. "There was no guarantee."
The officials were detained in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil by U.S. troops in January. The U.S. military has said the Iranians are suspected of links to a network supplying arms to Iraqi insurgents -- an accusation that Iran has denied.
Rice appeared CBS' "Face the Nation," "This Week" on ABC and a cable news network.