WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq told the Obama administration this month that Iran was interested in direct talks with the U.S. on Iran’s nuclear program and said that Iraq was prepared to facilitate the negotiations, Western officials said Thursday.
In a meeting in early July with the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, al-Maliki suggested that he was relaying a message from Iranian officials and asserted that Hasan Rouhani, Iran’s incoming president, would be serious about any discussions with the United States, according to accounts of the meeting.
Although al-Maliki indicated that he had been in touch with confidants of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he did not disclose precisely whom he was dealing with on the Iranian side. Some Western officials remain uncertain whether Iranian leaders have sought to use Iraq as a conduit or whether the idea is mainly al-Maliki’s initiative.
State Department officials declined to comment on al-Maliki’s move or what steps the U.S. might have taken in response. U.S. officials have said since the beginning of the Obama administration that they would be open to direct talks with Iran.
“Iraq is a partner of the United States and we are in regular conversations with Iraqi officials about a full range of issues of mutual interest, including Iran,” said Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman. “As we have repeatedly said, we are open to direct talks with Iran in order to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”
Gary Samore, who served as the senior aide on nonproliferation issues at the National Security Council during President Barack Obama’s first term, said that it was plausible that Iran would use Iraq to send a message about its willingness to discuss nuclear issues.
“The Iranians see Maliki as somebody they have some trust in,” said Samore, who is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. “From Maliki’s standpoint, it would serve a number of different purposes. He does not want to be squeezed between Washington and Tehran.”
In a separate move Thursday, the State and Treasury departments announced that the U.S. was expanding the list of medical devices, like dialysis machines, that could be sold to Iran without a license.
In a conference call with reporters, David Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that the move was intended to “accelerate trade” and address humanitarian needs in Iran. The announcement was also seen by many observers as a good-will gesture before Rouhani prepares to take office in Tehran on Aug. 4.
Direct talks have the potential to ratchet down some of the pressure on Obama over one of his greatest foreign policy challenges, the buildup of Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama has said that he will not permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon and has asserted that the use of military force is an option. Israeli officials have staked out a far tougher position, asserting that Iran should not be allowed to have the ability to build a weapon — and that the U.S. should do more to convince the Iranians that its threat to use force is credible. Israel has not ruled out military action of its own.
International sanctions have taken a serious toll on the Iranian economy and have helped bring Iran to the negotiating table but have not yet extracted significant concessions from Iran on its nuclear program. For years, the U.S. and its partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have met on and off with Iranian officials in a dialogue that has become known as the “P5 plus 1” talks.
Nonproliferation experts continue to argue that it is difficult to make major headway in such a committeelike forum and that if progress is to be made, it will have to happen in private one-on-one discussions between Iranian officials and the Obama administration.
Whether Iran is genuinely interested in such talks, however, has been a subject of debate. In 2009, William Burns, then the undersecretary of state for political affairs, met with Saeed Jalili, the Iranian nuclear negotiator, on the margins of the “P5 plus 1” talks. They agreed in principle that a portion of Iran’s enriched uranium could be used to make fuel for Tehran’s research center, which would preclude that material from being further enriched to make nuclear weapons.
But that deal fell through after Khamenei objected, and there have been no direct talks since.
In a meeting this month with Iran’s departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei was sharply critical of the U.S. stance.
“The Americans are unreliable and illogical, and are not honest in their approach,” Khamenei said. But he also said that he did not oppose talks “on certain issues.”
Even if direct talks are agreed to they are almost certain to be tough.
“The establishment of a bilateral channel is a necessary but not sufficient condition for coming to an agreement,” Samore said. “They want a nuclear weapons capability, and we want to deny them a nuclear weapons capability. Finding a compromise between those two objectives is going to be very difficult.”
Al-Maliki, Western officials said, is not the only Iraqi politician who has encouraged a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of a major Shiite party in Iraq, is also said to have made that point.
During the war in Iraq, Iraqi officials also urged direct dealings between the U.S. and Iran.
Talks were held in Baghdad, but they were focused on the conflict in Iraq and Iran’s support for Shiite militias there — not the nuclear question — and got nowhere.
Al-Maliki’s government appears to have been aligned with Iran on some issues, like its support for President Bashar Assad of Syria. Iranian aircraft have ferried huge quantities of arms through Iraqi airspace. Iraqi officials have asserted that they do not have the means to stop the flights, but al-Maliki has also been concerned that Assad’s fall will lead to an escalation of Sunni challenges to his government in Iraq.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said that al-Maliki is not a pawn of Iran and that the United States should try to expand its influence in Iraq, including by selling arms.