TEHRAN, Iran - The United States and Iran will hold meetings within the next few weeks in Baghdad to discuss the insurgency in Iraq, officials from the two nations said yesterday.
The talks, to be conducted between the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and Iranian officials, would be the highest-level negotiations acknowledged between the two countries in recent years.
"The purpose is to try to make sure that the Iranians play a productive role in Iraq," said Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman traveling with President Bush. "This is not about the United States and Iran. This is about Iraq."
In Tehran, where the news of the talks first broke, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Husseini confirmed that Iran "has agreed to negotiate."
Although officials stressed that no subjects other than Iraq would be on the table, the talks could help thaw the relationship between the two countries, observers and officials said.
"One meeting will not bring miracles, but it is a very encouraging and important development," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd and a longtime proponent of talks between Washington and Tehran.
The Bush administration has long kept the Islamic regime in Tehran at arms length, accusing it of supporting international terrorism, seeking to develop nuclear weapons and backing insurgents in Iraq.
But the Iranian government is believed to have influence both with Iraqi's Shiite-dominated government and with Shiite militias, and the administration is under increasing pressure from even its Republican allies in Congress to show progress in Iraq.
"It now seems like the U.S. wants an endgame in Iraq, and there is no endgame without involving Iran," said Vali Nasr, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Iran.
The United States and Iran broke off diplomatic relationship in 1980, after Iranian militants laid siege to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.
The talks could reduce "the kinds of risks of misunderstandings and false perceptions and lays the groundwork for allowing things to move forward in the future," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In Tehran, however, analysts said that limits on the agenda could be an issue of contention.
"The U.S. wants to talk about Iraq only, but Iran wants to have comprehensive talks on all issues," said Saeed Lailaz, an analyst in Tehran. "For Iran, security in Iraq is not the top priority. The top priority for Iran is [Iran's] own security."
U.S. and Iraqi officials said U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker likely will meet with Iranian officials within the next two weeks.
According to Iranian officials, the Bush administration requested the talks through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. But Zebari said groundwork was laid during a meeting with Crocker; David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi at a summit on Iraq held this month in Egypt.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Iranian and U.S. officials held extensive talks to coordinate their efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which both nations opposed. But rather than pursue this as a road to further talks, Bush named Iran as part of the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union speech.
In March this year, delegates from both countries attended talks in Baghdad about Iraq. U.S. representatives shared a table with Iranian, but delegates from the two countries did not hold private talks.
Iran confirmed yesterday that it had detained a prominent Iranian American academic, and a hard-line newspaper accused her of spying for the United States and Israel and trying to start a revolution inside Iran.
Haleh Esfandiari's arrest, part of a spate of recent crackdowns against Iranian activists, appears to reflect President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government's growing fear that the United States is using pro-democracy advocates to promote regime change, analysts say.
Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, went to Iran to see her ailing mother last year. She had been prohibited from leaving for four months, then was sent Tuesday to Iran's notorious Evin prison after arriving at the Intelligence Ministry for questioning, the institute said.
Iran's Foreign Ministry confirmed her arrest for the first time yesterday, saying that it was "based on law" and that Esfandiari, 67, would be treated like other Iranian nationals. It gave no reason for the arrest.
The day before, however, the hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan accused Esfandiari of spying for the United States and Israel and of attempting to launch a revolution inside Iran.