By Steve Negus in Sharm el-Sheikh
Published: May 4 2007 11:49 | Last updated: May 4 2007 19:13
US and Iranian officials had low-level contacts at a meeting intended to stabilise Iraq, after the Islamic republic’s foreign minister walked away from an opportunity to speak to Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, over dinner, ostensibly because of the presence of a woman violinist in a red dress.
The encounter between Iranian and US ambassadors at the two-day Iraq neighbours conference in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh lasted only a few minutes. But it was a further sign of a new US willingness to engage with regimes that oppose its policies and that it had sought to isolate.
Tehran, however, has apparently ruled out any substantive meeting with the US before the US military releases five Iranians held in Iraq since January.
In a departure from recent policy, Ms Rice met Walid Muallem, her Syrian counterpart, on Thursday. The talks were the highest level meeting since Washington pulled its ambassador out of Damascus in 2005, in the wake of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.
Ms Rice had been hoping to speak to Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, at a conference dinner. But he told a press conference on Friday that he left the dinner, where he was supposed to be seated directly across from Ms Rice, because there was “something wrong” with its “Islamic standards”, a reference to the violinist.
The US accuses Iran – and Syria – of fomenting Iraqi violence. Tehran, which on Friday blamed the Iraqi conflict on the US, had been reluctant to send representatives to the Sharm el Sheikh conference without a US promise that five Iranians arrested in Iraq would be released.
Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, told the Financial Times in an interview that the US would treat the five Iranian employees seized from an unofficial consular office as it would any other security detainees.
“They will have their case reviewed a couple months down the road,” he said. “It goes beyond the limits of imagination to characterise these guys as diplomatic officers or consular officers [as Iran does].”
The Sharm el Sheikh meeting, partly intended to break the ice between the US and Iraq’s neighbours, ended with a communiqué calling on governments to work to stabilise Iraq. It also produced an Arab League pledge to resume preparations for a national reconciliation conference that has been put on hold for more than a year.
The conference also reaffirmed the creation of several working groups that would deal with issues involving Iraq and its neighbours, including border security, in which Iran is expected to participate.
US and Iraqi officials have said they have detected some signs that Iraq’s neighbours are cracking down on support for militants.
A US military spokesman said on Thursday that the number of militants crossing the Syrian border had dropped in the last month.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007