The Bush administration has reversed a long-standing policy and will sit down with representatives of Iran and Syria to discuss the future of Iraq.

The face-saving explanation is that the meetings will take place as part of a conference organized and run by Iraq with lots of other participants from the region, the U.N. Security Council and the G-8 group of industrialized democracies.

The Bush administration’s policy had been that it wouldn’t meet with either Iran or Syria until Tehran abandoned its uranium-enrichment program and Damascus ended its support for extremists in Lebanon and Iraq. And the administration says those strictures still apply to any bilateral, face-to-face talks on issues other than Iraq.

The first round of talks will be in March at the ambassadorial level, with top State Department envoys filling in. The United States hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. And although we have diplomatic relations with Syria, there is no ambassador in Damascus, as a sign of displeasure with the regime.

In April, foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are to meet. The dynamics of that second, higher-level gathering will tell much about Iraq’s prospects.

It shouldn’t have taken this long for a regional conference on stabilizing Iraq, ending the violence and getting its economy, especially the oil industry, rolling again. Doing so had been one of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group in December, but the White House had appeared to brush it off.

The conference won’t succeed until the regional parties, including Russia, can be made to realize that a stable, prosperous Iraq is in their own best economic and diplomatic interests. In any case, it’s worth a try, and it’s not like there are a whole lot of other ideas out there.

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