BAGHDAD — Despite repeated offers from the United States, Iran has refused to set a new date for further talks between the two countries in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday.
The U.S. and Iranian ambassadors held three meetings last year in an effort to defuse tensions, but since then Iran has backed out of a follow-up session on three occasions, Iraqi officials said.
One Iraqi official thinks the reason is a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate in November that reversed an earlier assessment and concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"The timing of the NIE report was a disaster," said an Iraqi official with knowledge of the meetings. "The message vindicated Iran's position ... The pressure and the threat of force were keeping them in check. Now that's gone." The official refused to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Iraqi official worried that progress made in the earlier meetings may be lost if the talks stop, and Iran may reverse its support for a six-month cease-fire by the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al Sadr that's helped reduce the violence in Iraq.
"We're set to go," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told the Reuters news agency Thursday. "We have communicated that to the Iraqis, and the Iranians, for whatever reason, are holding back. We want to have these discussions — they have just suddenly gone quiet."
Crocker ended a 28-year diplomatic freeze between the U.S. and Iran last May when he held the first of three meetings with Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi.
The U.S. and Iran were to hold a fourth round of talks in December. The talks never took place, and no new date has been set, according to Mirembe Nantongo, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Iraq.
The Bush administration has accused Tehran of funding, training and supplying Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the charge and accuses the U.S. of destabilizing Iraq.
Shipments of deadly armor-piercing roadside bombs that are believed to originate in Iran dropped off at the end of 2007, but they spiked during the first 10 days of January before falling again, the U.S. military said Sunday.
Tensions between the two countries rose earlier this month when the U.S. Navy said that small Iranian speedboats threatened a U.S. warship in the Strait of Hormuz. The incident came on the eve of a Persian Gulf tour by President Bush in which he tried to rally Arab support against Iran, but after Iran released its video of the event, U.S. officials started backing away from their allegations that the Iranians had threatened the U.S. ship.
The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad said that the Iranian ambassador and his spokesman were out of the country, and an e-mail to the Iranian ambassador went unanswered.
Iran analysts said domestic politics might explain the Islamic Republic's hesitation to continue meeting with U.S. officials. Backers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad face tough parliamentary elections in March, and Ahmedinejad has lost support because he's failed to improve Iran's economy. Fuel shortages have left many Iranians without gas to heat their homes during the coldest winter in years, and liberals and moderate conservatives are banding together against Ahmadinejad.
"Right now they are in a really intense political season ... The stakes are very high," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University. "The reality is Iran is in a relatively good position in Iraq: We've eliminated all their natural enemies, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and they have a friendly Shiite government in Iraq ... I don't think Iran is under enormous pressure in Iraq — partly because of the surge, the security situation is not as drastic as it was before."
As U.S.-Iran talks stall, Ahmadinejad has accepted an invitation to visit Iraq, the first visit since Iraq went from enemy to ally after the U.S. invasion and the Shiite-led government was installed.