WASHINGTON - After years of scolding North Korea, and a rising rhetorical drumbeat on Iran and Syria, the United States is set to confront its foes face-to-face in a sudden burst of diplomacy.
But the administration of US President George W. Bush fiercely denies it has ditched its robust foreign policy and undergone a conversion on the road to Damascus, Tehran or Pyongyang.
After accusing Iran of boosting Iraqi militias and the dispatch of two aircraft-carrier groups to the Gulf, top US officials will join Iranian, Syrian and other regional envoys at just-scheduled talks on stabilizing Iraq.
And following six years of decrying one-on-one talks with Pyongyang as a reward for bad behavior, a senior US negotiator will meet a North Korean official next week to start thawing Cold War relations under a landmark nuclear deal.
“This did not just happen overnight,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday, playing down talk of a sudden breakthrough with two-thirds of the “axis of evil,” Bush’s 2002 characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
“This happened as a result of careful policy and diplomatic groundwork that has been laid over the course of years by this administration.
White House spokesman Tony Snow also ruled out a foreign policy flip-flop.
“There is no crack ... there will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings.”
“If you’re expecting, suddenly, new, chummy relations, you’ve created a scenario that is not justified by the facts on the ground.”
Those remarks appeared a step back from comments by a senior State Department official Tuesday who declined to rule out bilateral talks with Tehran on the issue of Iranian-made munitions allegedly being used against US troops in Iraq.
The Baghdad conference on March 10 will involve envoys from Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, along with the five UN Security Council powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
A ministerial meeting will follow as early as mid-April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday.
The meetings appear to closely resemble the call for a regional conference advocated by the independent Iraq Study Group in December, which the US administration first appeared to reject.
Snow argued US diplomats had attended multilateral meetings alongside Iranian counterparts for years, including Afghan reconstruction talks in 2002 and 2003 and an Iraqi Compact group meeting at the United Nations last year.
On another front, just two weeks after North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program, the State Department said Wednesday senior US diplomat Christopher Hill would meet in New York next week with Pyongyang’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan.
All that added up to a climbdown from the previous stance of no direct two-way meetings with the communist state, according to Bush’s critics.
The “decision to begin talks with Iran and Syria should have been made long ago,” said Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.
The administration was “right to reverse itself,” said Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman Joseph Biden.
Policy analysts also debated the new developments.
“This is very clearly an effort to bring the Iranians and the Syrians into a regional security discussion,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation think-tank added: “Something is going on in the decision-making structure of the White House.”
Some observers speculated the Bush administration was in such deep trouble, politically and in Iraq, that it had no choice but to embrace a policy change.
The new Democratic-led Congress, where even some Republicans have joined a fierce critique of Bush policy, may also have had an influence.
And was there a hidden hand behind the regional push, months after Bush said Iran and Syria should not even bother showing up to such talks without renouncing terrorism or halting interference in Iraq?
“I sense a very strong hint for Saudi Arabia,” said Alterman.
“The Saudis are in a position to tell the US government ‘we hate the Iranians even more than you do, but even so, you need to talk to them.´”
Clemons said that as well as the Saudis, European foreign policy chief Javier Solana and US ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad were also involved in behind-the-scenes diplomacy.