Friday, 4 May 2007

Middle East diplomacy (part 1): another Iraq summit

Diplomatic relations with such a tumultuous region can be hard to maintain at times, but keeping the channels of communication open is essential in order to help fix the problems in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere. In addition, discussion with states like Syria and Iran can resolve ongoing tensions. Unlike war, diplomacy is soft and does not always produce immediate effects. Some are dissatisfied with the outcome of diplomacy, but also unlike war there are few instances where diplomacy actually hurts the problem one or both sides wish to resolve.

I supported US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent (unofficial, non-policy related) diplomatic trip to Syria. By isolating Syria, this current administration has forced it nearer to Iran — by no means a positive influence. Lucky for the US, Syria is open to working with America and has an interest in the outcome of the current civil conflict in Iraq as well as the spread radical Islamic terrorism. The Syrians have even more to worry about political stability against terrorists than the US, also. The Iraq Study Group and many members of Congress have urged the White House to talk to Syria before relations deteriorate further and Iraq gets even worse.

Yesterday US Secretary of State Condi Rice met with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, in a much-needed discussion. At the top of the agenda was Iraq, and Syria's borders — which many extremists cross through to enter Iraq — were also an issue.

The 30-minute session with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem marks a diplomatic turning point for the Bush administration, which had resisted talks with Syria and Iran despite the recommendations of allies abroad and the Iraq Study Group and lawmakers from both parties at home.

The meeting was the first direct, official, and high-level talks between Syria, which President Bush has labeled an 'evil' state, and the United States in years. While some call talks like this 'talking with the enemy', Rice said her discussion with the Syrian FM was "professional", and that "I didn't lecture him and he didn't lecture me." However positive this news might be, signs are yet to reveal themselves of direct talks between the US and Iran. America came close to talking to its Persian arch-nemisis, but an official diplomatic discussion never panned out.
Both the U.S. and Iran had sounded interested, even eager, to improve on nearly three decades of name-calling and accusations. U.S. diplomats had pointed to the seaside conference about Iraq's future as a possible opening, and Iran's hardline president welcomed talks.

In the end, neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki wanted to make the first move.

This discussion came during a conference in Egypt on the Iraq issue. Iran and Syria are both in attendance, as America finally showed a more logical and less stubborn diplomatic policy in similar talks on Iraq in late March. One development that comes as no surprise: Iran blames the US for Iraq's woes, which is only partially correct.

This summit on Iraq has resulted in an International Compact for Iraq (ICI), a five-year plan for financial help and 'national reconciliation' for Iraq. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon placed the stated 'financial commitments' to Iraq at over $30 billion. The conference included delegations from the United States, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and the European Union.

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