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Chess Pieces Move: Bush Admin Officials Plan to Meet with Iranian and Syrian Reps in Neighborhood "Block Party"

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I'm getting a lot of "official statements" from U.S. Senators in my in-box all of a sudden commenting on the Bush administration's change of heart regarding attending official meetings with representatives from the governments of Iran and Syria.

This could be a pre-meeting for a true regional conference that draws together all of the key stakeholders in and around Iraq, and that is a key pillar of the Iraq Study Group Report's "New Diplomatic Offensive" proposal.

Time will tell whether this is meaningless flirtation -- or whether this is a carefully crafted "confidence building measure" that could lead to more meaningful engagement between the US and Iran over outstanding issues -- and between the US and Syria.

This has the markings of European and Saudi stage direction.

This writer has reasons to suspect that European Union High Commissioner for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and National Security Advisor to the Saudi King Prince Bandar bin Sultan have been moving chess pieces in consultation with departing US Ambassador to Iraq and incoming US Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad to make this "neighbors meeting" work.

This is a necessary but not sufficient first step in re-establishing a new and more stable equilibrium of interests in the Middle East.

Here is what Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) says about the "deal" to possibly deal:

"This is an important diplomatic initiative taken by the Iraqi government. We will not achieve peace and stability in Iraq without a regional framework that includes Iran and Syria. This conference can be an important first step towards creating that framework," Hagel said.

Here is presidential candidate and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden's statement on the White House's reverse course:

"The Administration is right to reverse itself and engage Iran and Syria on Iraq. Right now, they're a big part of the problem, but they have an interest in becoming part of the solution to prevent chaos in Iraq.

I hope this means that clearer heads in the Administration are beginning to prevail. If the conference is to have any impact on the sectarian violence in Iraq, it must enlist the support of Iraq's neighbors for a political settlement that would decentralize Iraq and give Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis control over their daily lives. We don't need a meeting for the sake of meeting -- there has to be a clear plan and purpose."

I have not been able to find statements as yet from Christopher Dodd, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, or other presidential hopefuls.

In lieu of a statement from New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson though is a sensible op-ed that appeared today in the Washington Post promoting diplomatic engagement with Iran over "chest-beating and dangerous brinkmanship."

Stay tuned. This just might be a beginning of a new, promising trend. But don't over-invest yet.

Not to be too snarky, it does seem remarkable that these kind of breakthroughs tend to happen when the Vice President is sidelined or flying off somewhere.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note