- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

BRUSSELS | The Obama administration made its first major overture to Iran on Thursday, proposing a high-level international conference on Afghanistan later this month that it hopes will include the Tehran government.

The forum, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a “big-tent meeting,” is likely to take place in the Netherlands and bring together countries and organizations with stakes in Afghanistan’s future.

“The United States proposes a ministerial-level conference on Afghanistan and the broader regional challenge on March 31,” Mrs. Clinton told NATO foreign ministers at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

“If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran will be invited as a neighbor of Afghanistan,” she said later at a news conference. “It is a way of bringing all the stakeholders and interested parties together.”

Mohammad Mir Ali Mohammadi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, said Iran was awaiting further information but sounded positive about attending the conference.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has genuine interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan and has consistently cooperated in bilateral and multilateral levels to strengthen peace in that war-torn country,” he told The Washington Times in an e-mail. “Iran is awaiting further information and clarification regarding the proposed meeting on Afghanistan.”

Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iranian nuclear negotiators, said, “Iran will likely participate as a major strategic stakeholder in Afghanistan’s stability, given the threats of conflict spillover, Iran’s antipathy toward Taliban, its excellent neighborly relations with the Kabul government, and growing narcotics traffic exacting the lives of so many Iranian law enforcement officials.” He urged the Obama administration to allow Iran to take part in setting the agenda for the conference.

A senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing preliminary arrangements, said the meeting would discuss how to implement the conclusions of an extensive U.S. policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan and issue recommendations for government leaders to discuss at NATO summits in early April. The Obama administration already has committed an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan and plans to send several thousand more.

The conference also could provide the first opportunity for high-level interaction between Iran and the Obama administration.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama proposed direct talks and even suggested that he would meet with Iran’s president. He later said that talks could begin at a lower level but provided few details of how the process might begin.

The U.S. and Iran have numerous disputes, including over Tehran’s nuclear program and its support for groups that the United States brands as terrorist. Iran also has been arresting Iranian-Americans in a crackdown on journalists and academics. On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton appealed for the release of Roxana Saberi, a freelance journalist from North Dakota who has reported for National Public Radio.

“I want to extend my deepest concern to her family and her friends, and hope that this matter will be resolved quickly,” she said.

Despite these differences, the U.S. and Iran have cooperated over Afghanistan, Iran’s eastern neighbor and a source of drugs and refugees that have severely affected Iran’s society.

“It seems like a very appropriate step” to invite Iran to an Afghan conference, said James Dobbin, a former U.S. diplomat who led talks with Iran and other nations that produced the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “The Iranians were very cooperative the last time we had such a gathering. While there are a number of new hurdles, Afghanistan is a good place to start.”

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. was discussing whether U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could open the conference and have his special representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, lead the meeting.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that the administration had invited the world organization to participate. Mr. Ban might have a scheduling conflict but will send Mr. Eide, Mr. Haq said.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said that Mrs. Clinton has asked the Netherlands to host the conference.

Mrs. Clinton is expected to lead the U.S. delegation and Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will attend, U.S. officials said. The presence of Dennis Ross, Mrs. Clinton’s special adviser for the Gulf, is unlikely, they said.

It was not clear who would invite Iran. Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since 1980, when Iran held U.S. hostages.

Earlier this week, a U.S. official quoted Mrs. Clinton as expressing skepticism about the prospects for U.S.-Iran talks. Iran was a major issue during her stops in the Middle East earlier in the week, where she said she heard “a great deal of concern about Iran from the entire region.”

Israel and Sunni Arab nations fear Iran’s rising regional profile as well as its nuclear advances.

The situation in Afghanistan is less clear cut. While Iran helped the U.S. oust the Taliban in 2001, more recently, U.S. officials have accused Iran of arming the militant group.

A hard-line Iranian newspaper, Jomhuri-ye-Eslami, or Islamic Republic, wrote Thursday in an editorial that the U.S. is back where it started in Afghanistan.

“America attacks the northern and northwestern parts of Pakistan pretending that terrorists feeding the rebellion in Afghanistan are stationed there,” it said. “These events show that the situation in Afghanistan is still critical. After 7 years, America’s attack on Afghanistan has achieved no results and everything has gone back to its original position.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington, and Betsy Pisik contributed from the U.N. in New York.

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