- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

THE HAGUE | The United States and Iran held their highest-level meeting in eight years Tuesday on the sidelines of a conference on Afghanistan and raised the issue of missing and jailed Americans, signaling that the Obama administration is dispensing with intermediaries to deal with a longtime adversary.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said more direct contacts are to come as part of a major outreach to Tehran promised by President Obama during the presidential campaign.

“In the course of the conference today, our special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, had a brief and cordial exchange with the head of the Iranian delegation,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at the end of the one-day event, adding, “They agreed to stay in touch.”

Neither Mrs. Clinton nor her aides said exactly how long the meeting between the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh lasted.

Mrs. Clinton said the meeting had not been scheduled in advance and that it “did not focus on anything substantive.” She welcomed as “promising” Mr. Akhoundzadeh’s offer in a speech at the conference to help combat drug trafficking in Afghanistan, which has had dire consequences for Iran.

“Iran is fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and the plans in line with developing and reconstruction of Afghanistan,” Mr. Akhoundzadeh said.

However, he combined this with criticism of Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan plan announced Friday. The Iranian said the decision to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan was an “ineffective” strategy to improve security.

“The presence of foreign forces has not improved things in the country, and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective, too,” he said.

Mr. Obama said repeatedly during his election campaign that his administration would talk with Iran’s most senior officials, including potentially President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Last week, Mr. Obama sent a televised message on the occasion of the Persian new year in which he pointedly mentioned Iran’s official name - the Islamic Republic of Iran - implicitly recognizing the Iranian government.

Western diplomats have told The Washington Times that the Obama administration plans to use multiple channels to reach out to Iran. The two countries have had only intermittent official contact since the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in 1980, while Iran held U.S. diplomats hostage during the throes of the Islamic revolution.

Tuesday’s meeting was the highest-level bilateral encounter between the two countries since late 2001, when U.S. envoy James Dobbins held a series of one-on-one meetings in Germany with an Iranian deputy foreign minister to discuss Afghanistan shortly after a U.S.-led military operation toppled the Taliban in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Dobbins called The Hague meeting “a resumption of a process that was very productive and could be again.” He acknowledged that it had “higher visibility” because of Mr. Holbrooke’s higher profile.

“There’s no doubt that Holbrooke is a more substantial figure in terms of personal stature,” Mr. Dobbins said modestly. Tuesday’s session is “a first indication that the two sides are prepared to talk without intermediaries. Neither side has a principled objection to being seen communicating with the other.”

In another unprecedented move bypassing intermediaries, Mrs. Clinton instructed her delegation to The Hague conference to hand the Iranians a letter asking that Tehran help return three U.S. citizens known or thought to be in Iran.

The letter mentioned Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing two years ago while on a business trip to Iran; freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American jailed in Tehran; and Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American student detained in Iran last year.

In the past, such a request would have been passed to Iran through the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in the absence of U.S. ties with Iran.

“We ask Iran to use all its facilities to determine the whereabouts and ensure the quick and safe return of Robert Levinson, and grant the release of Roxana Saberi, and permission to travel for Roxana Saberi and Esha Momeni,” the letter said.

“These acts would certainly constitute a humanitarian gesture by the Islamic Republic of Iran in keeping with the spirit of renewal and generosity that marks the Persian new year,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters.

Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, praised the direct contact but noted that Iran was being cautious by sending a deputy foreign minister to The Hague. Iran still “wants to know where the U.S. is going to go” in terms of the broader relationship before meeting at a higher level, he said.

Iran demonstrated its caution by not sending Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to the ministerial-level meeting. Iran’s official news agency initially denied that the Holbrooke meeting took place.

Although the U.S. and Iran have cooperated in the past over Afghanistan, the two countries have multiple differences over Iran’s nuclear program and support for Middle Eastern groups that the U.S. regards as terrorists.

“We are hopeful that Ambassador Holbrooke´s meeting reminds Americans how great a concern a nuclear-armed Iran is to the United States and the world,” said Joe Kildea of United Against Nuclear Iran, a group that advocates more pressure on Iran to stop enriching uranium.

The brief meeting Tuesday was the fruit of a conference proposed by Mrs. Clinton three weeks ago that in the end drew more than 80 countries and organizations.

In her address to the conference, Mrs. Clinton backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plan to reconcile with militants who renounce violence.

“We must also support efforts by the government of Afghanistan to separate the extremists of al Qaeda and the Taliban from those who joined their ranks not out of conviction, but out of desperation. This is, in fact, the case for a majority of those fighting with the Taliban,” she said. “They should be offered an honorable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society, if they are willing to abandon violence, break with al Qaeda and support the constitution.”

A senior U.S. official traveling with the secretary said the United States could pay for such a program, as it did in Iraq two years ago.

“The Afghans will design the program, and we will support it - that could involve money, as we funded [similar] programs, or could involve other things,” the official said.

• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington.

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