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U.S., Iran Headline Hague Conference On Afghanistan

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh before the start of the international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh before the start of the international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague.

Participants from roughly 80 countries are gathering in The Hague on March 31 for a UN-backed conference on the future of Afghanistan, where a violent insurgency with ties to international extremists continues to hamper efficient government and reconstruction efforts.

But while the conference is all about Afghanistan, many eyes will be focused on participants from Iran and the United States.

The meeting comes just days after U.S. President Barack Obama promised a "new beginning" in relations with Iran, with Iran's leadership responding cautiously that the United States must alter its behavior to effect real change.

Iranian participation in a Moscow gathering last week to discuss Afghanistan and reports that Tehran and NATO have quietly held meetings on the same topic have further fueled speculation that a possible thaw -- at least in specific areas -- could be on the horizon.

The two countries remain bitterly at odds over Iranian nuclear ambitions, which U.S. officials have suggested are aimed at developing a weapons capacity but Iranians say are simply to provide energy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said there are no plans for any substantive meeting directly with Iranian representatives at the Afghanistan conference, but State Department spokesman Robert Wood noted that "Iran has a role to play [and] we hope it will be a positive one."

Some analysts say the conference is an early test for ties between the Islamic republic and the new Obama administration, and could set the tone for future interaction.

Representatives from about a dozen international organizations and nongovernmental observers in The Hague are expected to discuss the future of Afghanistan and renewing international support to stabilize that country.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is hoping to win support at the 90-nation conference for greater military involvement along with increased economic development and army and police training to defeat Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.

In a reversal of the policy of the former Bush administration, Obama's team views Iran as vital to any lasting solution in its neighbor, and has sought engagement despite the continuing standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.

Iran, however, has already said it rejects the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

"The presence of foreign troops cannot bring peace and stability for Afghanistan," Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh was quoted as saying in The Hague by Iran's official IRNA news agency.

"It encourages radicalism," he said, adding that a regional solution was needed. "This policy [the Western countries] decide for the Afghan nation and for the Afghan officials does not work out any more."

Cut Ties

Iran and the United States cut diplomatic ties following the 1979 hostage crisis and in recent years have clashed on a number issues, including Iran's nuclear activities and support for groups such as Hamas and Hizballah. However, the two countries are also seen as sharing common interests, such as bringing stability to Afghanistan and Iraq and stemming the export of illegal drugs beyond Afghanistan's borders.

Tehran and Washington cooperated in establishing a post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan within the auspices of the UN-backed Bonn conference in late 2001. Shortly afterward, however, U.S. President George W. Bush famously identified Iran as part of an "axis of evil" and the collaboration ended.

Davud Hermidas Bavand, a former Iranian diplomat who is now a professor of international law in Tehran, suggested to RFE/RL that constructive talks at The Hague could positively influence ties between the two countries.

"Afghanistan and Iraq are two areas that offer the possibility of mutual understanding [between Tehran and Washington], and, if the understanding brings the [desired results], it can have a relative impact in other more contemptuous areas like nuclear technology and other issues," Bavand said.

Obama recently issued a video message to the Iranian people and leaders on the occasion of the Persian New Year in which he called for a fresh start in relations.

The message was interpreted as a significant shift in U.S. tone and a signal that Washington could be distancing itself from a policy aimed at regime change in Iran.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted to Obama's message by suggesting that if Washington showed genuine change in its policies toward Tehran, Iran would also change its approach.

Bavand says that concrete measures are needed if the two countries are to put behind aside past differences.

"Messages are effective from a psychological and propaganda purposes, yet only practical steps can have a real impact," Bavand said. "So it is advisable to begin with areas where an agreement can be reached and where there are fewer differences."

Slow Progress

Few, if any, analysts expect any sudden rapprochement between the two countries after three decades of hostility and mistrust. Most say any path to mutual engagement will be long and difficult.

The United States has also acknowledged that change is likely to come slowly. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said on March 29 that Washington was not getting its hopes up for any breakthrough with Iran at The Hague. He told CNN that 30 years of bitter disagreements between the United States and Iran won't be erased in one meeting.

Iranian and U.S. representatives sat at the same table during a March 27 meeting in Moscow, held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where efforts to combat terrorism and the drug trade in Afghanistan were discussed.

The SCO meeting came soon after reports claimed that Iranian and NATO officials held informal talks earlier in March. The meeting, purportedly between an Iranian diplomat and a senior NATO official, would mark the first talks between those two entities in 30 years.

Sir Richard Dalton, a former U.K. ambassador to Iran, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that there must be a substantial evolution of positions on both sides if Obama's approach is to succeed.

"A balanced process is required in which there are many requirements which Iran is bound to address in the same way that the United States is bound to address the requirements that Iran has," Dalton said.

Some Iran observers say the United States will have to make some concessions, including on the most disputed issue: Iran's uranium-enrichment program. Western countries are concerned that Iran could use its uranium-enrichment program for the production of nuclear weapons. Tehran has defined the enrichment program as a "red line" that cannot be crossed and argues that, as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Shahram Chubin, director of research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, said the U.S. administration might have come to the conclusion that the chances -- at this point -- of Iran rolling back its enrichment program are highly unlikely.

"But [the United States] will try, and hopefully prevent further enrichment -- especially enrichment beyond what's needed for a nuclear-power reactor," Chubin said. "So in a way it's another red line that has moved again, in which this administration says, 'There is no way Iran is going to stop and then roll back [so] let's try to get them to slow down and let's get them to try and stop short of more dangerous capability, and we can do that by reassuring them and by sort of incremental engagement.'"

Chubin said he thinks such an incremental approach toward Iran is partly a product of domestic political realities, including the financial crisis.

Some analysts predict that if engagement efforts with Iran fail to bear fruit, the United States and its European allies could attempt to ratchet up international pressure on Iran and toughen sanctions.

On March 27, top U.S. lawmakers warned Obama in a letter that any engagement with Iran "cannot be open-ended," given what they described as "urgent" concerns about Tehran's nuclear program.

Radio Farda's Hossein Aryan contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at