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Analysis: Rice and Iranian: Not much of a spring thaw for chilly relations

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SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt — If this was supposed to be the spring thaw in the chilly relationship between Iran and the United States, it was a short season.
    The top diplomats from both nations circled one another for two days during the international conference here, but passed up what would have been the first high-level face-to-face talks since the United States broke off relations over the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
    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.
    ‘‘You can ask him why he didn’t make an effort,’’ Rice told reporters Friday. ‘‘I’m not given to chasing anyone.’’
    Neither side had expressly asked for a meeting, although conference host Egypt worked hard to throw the chief diplomats together at a series of cozy meals. The hope, diplomats watching the drama said, was that one party might accidentally on purpose chat up the other.
    Kind of like a junior high dance, but with better food.
    Mottaki, speaking Friday as Rice left Sharm el-Sheik, said there was no time during the conference to meet her. He said planning and political will on both sides was needed for a substantive meeting.
    ‘‘It should be clear what we are trying to get from the meeting, what are we going to discuss,’’ he said. ‘‘Such meetings should not be something theatrical. They should be substantive.’’
    The White House expressed no disappointment at the missed opportunity.
    Bush had asked Rice to talk with the Syrians — as she did — because the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had requested it, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. The president didn’t tell her to talk to the Iranians.
    ‘‘If the opportunity would have presented itself to meet with the Iranians as well, I think that the secretary would have been pleased to talk with them,’’ she said. ‘‘It didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have any contact with them.’’
    Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and David Satterfield, the U.S.-Iraq coordinator, did have a three-minute chat with Iran’s deputy foreign minister and talked about Iraq, according to Crocker, who played down the conference hall encounter.
    Rand Corp. foreign policy analyst and former diplomat James Dobbins compared the United States and Iran to Alphonse and Gaston, the 19th century cartoon bumblers who made an absurd show of courtesy.
    ‘‘You first, I insist,’’ one would say to the other. ‘‘No, you first,’’ the second would respond with a grandiose bow.
    ‘‘Apparently neither was willing to become the demander in that process, lest it be rebuffed or made to appear the weaker,’’ Dobbins said.
    As such, the Iraq conference may have demonstrated the limits of the Bush administration’s new willingness to hold its nose and negotiate, or at least meet face-to-face, with its adversaries. Rice did sit down for a talk with Syria’s top diplomat, after two years of the cold shoulder from Washington.
    Often criticized for a go-it-alone style that many other nations resent, the administration is also talking directly with North Korea, which Bush famously linked with Iran and pre-invasion Iraq as an ‘‘axis of evil.’’
    Until this spring, the administration dismissed calls for an outreach to Iran and Syria.
    Bush and Rice had said those nations knew what they should do to help in Iraq and did not need the United States’ encouragement. U.S. officials also said the price of negotiation would be too high.
    Lower-level U.S. and Iranian diplomats had held rare talks on the sidelines of a March gathering that was a precursor to this week’s meeting. Speculation that those talks would lead to a more significant Cabinet-level meeting all but swamped the actual business of the Iraq conference in this Red Sea resort town.
    U.S. officials had said any meeting with the Iranians this week would also be limited to the subject of Iraq, where the U.S. accuses Iran of undermining the fragile government.
    Iran and the United States are the nations with the most influence over Iraq’s fate, and Iraqi leaders were among those leaning on the Bush administration to try to cooperate with Iran for Iraq’s sake.
    ‘‘The opportunity simply didn’t arise,’’ for a substantive meeting, Rice said. ‘‘As I said, I would have taken that opportunity but it didn’t arise.’’
    She had just come from a meeting where she listened to Mottaki blame the U.S. for Iraq’s turmoil and demand the release of five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in Iraq.
    ‘‘The United States must accept the responsibilities arising from the occupation of Iraq, and should not finger-point or put the blame on others,’’ Mottaki told the delegates.
    The U.S. said Mottaki boycotted a dinner with Rice and other delegates on Thursday, telling conference host Egypt that the evening’s entertainer, a Ukrainian violinist, was too scantily clad.
    ‘‘I don’t know which woman he was afraid of, the woman in the red dress or the secretary of state,’’ Rice’s spokesman said later.
    The two diplomats’ interaction amounted only to wary pleasantries, but Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit put the best face on it.
    ‘‘They were in the same room. They were very proper with each other,’’ he told reporters.
    EDITOR’S NOTE — Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and foreign affairs, based in Washington.
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