Iran's foreign minister walked out of a dinner of diplomats
( AP ) - Iran's foreign minister walked out of a dinner of diplomats where he was seated directly across from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on the pretext that the female violinist entertaining the gathering was dressed too revealingly.
"I don't know which woman he was afraid of, the woman in the red dress or the secretary of state," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday, regarding the actions of Iran's Manouchehr Mottaki.
The dinner episode Thursday night amid a major regional conference on Iraq perfectly revealed how hard it was to bring together the top diplomats of the two rival nations.
Meanwhile, Iraq's neighbors on Friday negotiated a declaration that would pledge support for Iraq's embattled Shiite-led government in return for more inclusion of Sunni Arabs in the political process.
A draft copy of the six-page declaration said the summit participants would agree to support Iraq's government as long as it ensured the "basic right of all Iraqi citizens to participate peacefully in the political process through the country's political system."
Going into the summit, the Iraqi government had hoped for a breakthrough meeting between Rice and Mottaki. Instead, their only direct contact was a wary exchange of pleasantries over lunch Thursday, punctuated by a wry, somewhat mysterious comment by Mottaki.
Mottaki walked out of the diplomats' dinner on the pretext that the female violinist entertaining the gathering was dressed too revealingly.
The Iranian entered the lunch, greeting the gathered diplomats with the Arabic phrase, "As-salama aleikum," or "Peace be upon you," according to an Iraqi official who was present.
Rice replied to him in English, "Hello," then added: "Your English is better than my Arabic," according to the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the lunch was private.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit then piped in, telling Mottaki, "We want to warm the atmosphere some."
Mottaki smiled and replied in English with a saying: "In Russia, they eat ice cream in winter because it's warmer than the weather" - more or less meaning, "You take whatever atmosphere-warming you can get."
"That's true," Rice replied, according to the Iraqi official.
After lunch, Egypt's Aboul Gheit told the Associated Press he would try to arrange a further informal meeting between Rice and Mottaki at a gala dinner being thrown by the Egyptians Thursday night on the beach of a nearby resort hotel.
"Why not?" Aboul Gheit said. "It is only one table." But asked if he would seat Rice and Mottaki next to each other, he said, "No, no."
As it turned out, Mottaki's place was set directly across the table from Rice. When Mottaki entered the dinner and saw the arrangement, he immediately told his hosts that he had to excuse himself and leave, said a U.S. official who accompanied Rice.
Mottaki complained that the Egyptian female violinist playing nearby was too revealingly dressed, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, also because the dinner was a closed affair.
The Iraqi government and some Arab countries had hoped for a real one-on-one meeting between Rice and Mottaki, saying that the two countries' conflict is only fueling Iraq's chaos. Ahead of the two day conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Rice had expressed a willingness to meet, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said he would welcome talks.
But on Thursday, Rice said the American side was not asking for a meeting, and the Iranians appeared reluctant to be the ones to make the first move.
The U.S. accuses Iran of increasing Iraq's violence by backing militants there, as well as accusing Tehran of aiming to build a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration has rejected direct talks with Iran despite growing calls for contacts.
Iran denies the U.S. accusations and is calling for U.S. troops to leave neighboring Iraq, blaming Washington's policies for the country's bloodshed.
Separately Thursday, summit participants agreed on the International Compact with Iraq - an ambitious blueprint to stabilize the nation.
The plan sets benchmarks to achieve a stable, united, democratic Iraq within five years. It defines international help for Iraq - including debt relief - but also sets tough commitments on the Baghdad government, particularly carrying out reforms aimed at giving Iraq's Sunni Arabs a greater role in the political process.
The Iraqi government, the United Nations and many of the more than 60 countries and international organizations gathered here hailed the launch of the blueprint as a milestone.