December 16, 2017

U.S.-Iran Talks Underscore Difficulties in Restoring Ties

May 13, 2003

WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials have met with Iranian representatives in Geneva for talks on postwar Iraq, but the discussions haven’t dealt with restoring diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran, U.S. and Iranian officials said.

In fact, the talks appear to have underscored their differences. At a meeting earlier this month, senior White House aide Zalmay Khalilzad described U.S. concerns that Tehran might be seeking to disrupt the U.S.-run process for creating a new Iraqi government. Iranian officials complained that the U.S. hadn’t followed through on prewar promises to shut down an anti-Tehran militia group, Mujahedin-e-Khalq, that has conducted raids for years from bases in Iraq.

“U.S. officials have shown over the past months that they are not committed to pursuing mutual respect in dealing with Iran,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, who was quoted by Iran’s official news agency. That apparently was a reference to U.S. efforts in recent weeks to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency to find that Iran is violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by pursuing a weapons program, which Tehran denies.

U.S. officials portrayed the meeting as part of regular contacts with Tehran that began before the 2001 war in Afghanistan, but that didn’t reflect any movement toward restoring diplomatic ties. “This is not somehow a new opening of diplomatic relations. This is an opportunity to deal with some practical issues,” said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker.

But the talks, first reported by USA Today, come at a time when the U.S. is grappling internally with whether to maintain a tough stance toward Tehran or ease tensions that have escalated sharply since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Some senior officials in the Bush administration say Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and support of anti-Israeli terrorist groups make it the major remaining source of instability in the Middle East. These officials argue for a policy of confronting the Iranian regime in hopes of destabilizing it from within.

Other officials, mainly at the State Department, say that the U.S. needs to reach an understanding with Tehran if it hopes to achieve its near-term goal of building a new Iraqi government. A similar debate about how to deal with the U.S. is going on inside the Iranian government.

Mr. Khalilzad said at the recent meeting that the U.S. intended to follow through on disarming the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, according to two officials. A cease-fire agreement reached by U.S. forces with the MEK, which is listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, has angered Iran.

Mr. Asefi made clear that Tehran is watching whether Washington complies with its original promise. Iran fears the U.S. intends to keep the group intact so it can harass Iranians in the future. “We have informed the U.S. through various channels that there is no good or bad terrorist,” he said.