Analysis: U.S. Balancing Act on Iran

CAIRO (AP) - The prospect of direct U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq represents an
important shift in relations between the two adversaries.

The development comes during Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to the
region, where he is trying to convince moderate Arab states that the U.S.
will stand firm against Tehran's encroachment. He also is seeking to build
support for the delicate Iraqi government.

Cheney is only one part of a U.S. tag team. The second member, Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice, seems to be playing on the other side of the street.

The vice president has emphasized a hard line on Iran over the past week in
stops in moderate Arab nations and talks to U.S. troops in Iraq and on an
aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

He has urged Arab countries to do more to help stabilize the Iraqi
government and hinted that Washington would work to keep Iran from
dominating the region.

Rice is leading a countervailing effort to reach out to Iran despite serious
doubts whether there is anyone willing to reach back.

The two tracks crossed on Sunday.

Iran's official news agency reported that the U.S. sought face-to-face
meetings in Baghdad with the Iranians to discuss security in Iraq - and that
Tehran would accept.

Cheney's spokeswoman said after the vice president's meeting in Cairo with
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the U.S. was willing to talk to Iran
if the discussions just deal with Iraq and were
held at the "ambassadorial

It is the first time Tehran has gone for the offer. But spokeswoman Lea Anne
McBride noted that the idea of such talks had been floated before, in what
the State Department is calling the "Baghdad channel."

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe later said the U.S. ambassador to
Iraq, Ryan Crocker, would meet with Iranian in Baghdad in the next few

"The president authorized this channel because we must take every step
possible to stabilize Iraq and reduce the risk to our troops even as our
military continue to act against hostile Iranian-backed activity in Iraq,"
Johndroe said while traveling with President Bush in Virginia.

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said, "This is the same
channel that has been open to both sides for some time. ... But it hasn't
been used before in its most formal sense."

Little by little, the administration seems to be bowing to political
pressure and accepting a recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group
to do more diplomatically to engage Iran and Syria.

"I was heartened to see that the United States and Iran are finally,
evidently, going to sit down and talk. I've been calling for engagement with
Iran for four years," said Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, the second-ranking
Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Iran is not going to do us any favors, but it's in their interest to find
some common denominators here," Hagel said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.

Rice is seeking to build on a recent regional conference on Iraq that she
attended with diplomats from Syria and Iran. The meeting, aimed at achieving
a consensus to stabilize Iraq, did not produce the breakthrough for which
Rice and others had hoped.

The secretary promised the Iraqis the U.S. would follow up in trying to
engage Iran and Syria and she did not rule out talks in the future at her
level. The upcoming Baghdad meeting can be seen as an intermediate step.

"One needs to be very careful about confusing dialogue with progress," said
Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington.

He said huge differences remain - on nuclear weapons and long-range
missiles, Iran's growing military capability and its role in Lebanon. "There
is no meaningful prospect for a 'grand bargain,' in spite of some
well-meaning voices," Cordesman said.

Some Arab states are concerned about predominantly Shiite Iran's recent
efforts to extend its influence, not only in Shiite-majority Iraq but among
other neighbors with large Shiite populations.

In his travels, Cheney sought to reassure states such as Saudi Arabia, which
is predominantly Sunni, and the moderate United Arab Emirates that the U.S.
would serve as a counterbalance to ambitious Iran.

He pledged that "we'll keep the sea lanes open" and said the U.S. would join
with allies to keep Iran "from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this
region." Cheney has emphasized links between Iran and sophisticated roadside
bombs used to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

Yet while Cheney was warmly received by Emirates leaders Saturday, Iran's
hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Abu Dhabi on Sunday to
great fanfare.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser on Mideast issues to
both Republican and Democratic administrations, said the diplomatic dance
between Washington and Tehran is a difficult and high-stakes one, especially
for Saudi Arabia.

"The Saudis understand that if we end up with a crisis with Iran, either
because the Israelis or the Americans use military force, that they're going
to be extremely vulnerable to Iranian retaliation - particularly if the
use Iraqi, Saudi or Jordanian air space, which they would have to,"
Miller said.

Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace in Washington, said expectations should be "modest,
given the depth of mutual mistrust and ill will which currently exists."

Interestingly, on Sunday, it was Cheney's staff - not the White House or
State Department - that offered the first official confirmation of the
upcoming talks.

That appeared to reassure some top Republicans.

"Well, the vice president indicated as long as the discussions are about the
Iraq security issue, the administration was comfortable with it. I don't see
anything wrong with that. I think the Iranians are part of the problem in
Iraq. To the extent that they want to discuss discontinuing that kind of
mischievous behavior, I think that would be helpful," Kentucky Sen. Mitch
McConnell, the Senate's GOP leader, said on "Late Edition" on CNN.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for
The Associated Press since 1973.


Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, John Heilprin and Matthew Lee in
Washington and Ben Feller in Jamestown, Va.,