WASHINGTON – As they return to nuclear talks in Vienna today, U.S. and Iranian diplomats are taking care to prevent the upheaval in Iraq from complicating their high-priority negotiations.
Both countries have a mutual interest in preventing the collapse of the Iraqi government, which faces a small army of Sunni extremists on the northern outskirts of Baghdad.
But they have been at odds over each other’s role in Iraq and could come in conflict again now, even as the nuclear talks reach a sensitive moment.
The nuclear talks, which in this round will run Monday through Friday, are aimed at a deal that would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability in exchange for a lifting of the tough international sanctions on its economy. Iran and the six world powers – France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and the United States – are aiming for a deadline of July 20.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking in Tehran on Saturday, left the door open to a U.S.-Iranian collaboration. He said that if the Obama administration decided to take a direct role in the fight in Iraq “we can think about it.”
Obama administration officials have deflected questions about cooperating with Iran in the expanding Iraq fight. They’ve denied that they’re talking to the Rouhani government about the issue.
But it is clear that they hope Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki discourages Iran from mobilizing Shiite militias to take on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That, they fear, could give the fight even more of a sectarian complexion, and could turn Sunni tribes in Iraq further from the government.