- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

KABUL (AP) - An improvement in Iran’s relationship with the United States would have no effect on Afghanistan’s Taliban militancy or the country’s booming drug trade, an Iranian diplomat said Tuesday.

The comments came ahead of a conference to discuss the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, proposed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta has said that any decrease in tensions between Iran and the West would benefit Afghanistan.

But Feda Hussein Maliki, Iran’s ambassador to Kabul, said he wasn’t even sure that Iran would attend the March 31 conference, adding that Tehran has yet to receive an invitation. Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Christoph Prommersberger says an invitation has been delivered by the Dutch embassy in Tehran and to the Iranian Embassy in The Hague.

“Our relation is a strategic relation with Afghanistan … a deep relationship that has no links with other relations, whether America would or wouldn’t be in Afghanistan,” Maliki said on the sidelines of a ceremony marking a trade pact to import Iranian cars to Afghanistan.

The invitation to Iran to a U.S.-proposed conference was seen as a new emphasis on diplomacy by the administration of President Barack Obama. The U.S. and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations in almost 30 years.

Clinton told the BBC this month that Iran was “helpful” during the early days of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, a conciliatory gesture at the beginning of a new administration. Clinton said the Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan had “almost daily” contact with the U.S. ambassador in the early stages of the war.

Adrian Edwards, the top U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan who traveled to Iran this month, said top Iranian officials expressed interest in the conference, but he said it wasn’t yet clear they would attend.

“I think they’ll wait until the last minute before deciding,” he said.

But Edwards also said that in conversations with Iran’s director of counternarcotics and top Foreign Ministry officials, he got the impression Iran is interested in more regional cooperation. Iranian officials expressed interest in helping train Afghanistan’s fledgling police force, he said, a job now mostly undertaken by the U.S.

“They speak the same language, they’re from this region,” he said. Iranian expertise is “cheaper than bringing people from further afield who may not know Afghanistan as well.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week he would open the one-day conference.

Malek Sitez, an international law expert in Kabul, said Iran, the U.S., Europe and Russia all have a common desire to reduce the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan but can’t maximize their cooperation due to political disagreements.

“This is a big problem for Afghanistan and the international community,” he said.

An increasing role for Iran in Afghanistan could also vastly alter the regional power balance, he said. Pakistan has long had a strong hand in Afghanistan, particularly in support of the country’s Sunni Pashtuns. Iran, a Shiite country, could alter that dynamic, throwing more support to Afghanistan’s minority Shiites, Sitez said.

“If Iran undertakes a stronger role, the role of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will be weakened,” he said. “If a balance of power can be found … it will help Afghanistan’s push toward ethnic equality.”

The governor of Nimroz _ a province in southwest Afghanistan that shares a 60-mile (100 kilometer) border with Iran _ said he hopes U.S.-Iran relations improve so the fight against the Taliban might be strengthened.

“When the relationship gets better, then the enemy has no rear support,” said Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad.

___

Associated Press reporters Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Arthur Max in Amsterdam contributed to this report.

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