- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

UPDATED:

THE HAGUE | Top U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke met Tuesday with a senior Iranian official, in the Obama administration’s first direct diplomatic contact with the Islamic republic.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters the brief meeting would not be the last.

In another unprecedented move, Mrs. Clinton instructed her delegation to an international conference on Afghanistan to hand to the Iranians a letter asking that Tehran help return three American citizens known or thought to be in Iran to the United States.



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

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Neither Mrs. Clinton nor her aides said how long exactly the meeting lasted.

The letter regarding the three Americans [-] Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing two years ago while on a business trip to Iran; freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, who is Iranian-American and is in jail in Tehran; and Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American student detained in Iran last year [-] was given to the Iranians without the use of a third party, the Swiss, as has been typical since the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980.

A U.S. official traveling with Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Holbrooke did not deliver the letter but did not say who had.

“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.”

More than 80 countries and organizations gathered for the hastily arranged conference, which was proposed by Mrs. Clinton three weeks ago.

Delegates from various countries welcomed President Barack Obama’s plan, announced Friday, to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

However, Mr. Akhoundzadeh said the decision 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.

At the same time, he offered to help combat drug-trafficking in the war-torn country.

“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,” said Mr. Akhoundzadeh, who was sent to the ministerial-level meeting instead of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Mrs. Clinton called that statement “promising.” She also told the delegates that, if the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is to succeed, they will have to provide trainers for “every army and police unit” in the war-torn nation.

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