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Clinton Not Planning Iran Meeting At Conference

Hillary Clinton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has no immediate plans to meet separately with Iran's delegation at a March 31 international conference on Afghanistan, the State Department said.

Clinton proposed the conference while at NATO headquarters in Brussels earlier this month and the meeting is set to be held in The Hague under UN auspices.

The Obama administration, in a shift from President George W. Bush's isolation policy toward Iran, has said it would be prepared to engage Tehran on a range of issues.

The invitation to the conference was seen as the first public overture to Iran, which Bush famously described as being part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.

Iran's government spokesman said on March 7 that Iran would consider an invitation and was willing to help in Afghanistan. It is not yet clear, which officials Iran would send to the meeting.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood did not rule out a possible meeting with the Iranians, but he said no bilateral talks were planned between Clinton and her counterpart from Tehran.

"I will not rule out the fact that there could be some kind of a, you know, a greeting of some type, but there's no plan, as far as I know, for there to be a meeting between the two delegations," Wood told reporters.

He said the goal of the Afghanistan conference was to help devise a "coherent international policy" in dealing with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the United States and allies are fighting militant groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

"This conference is more than just the U.S. and Iran. It's -- as I said, it's about Afghanistan and the situation in the region. And that's where we need to keep our focus," said Wood.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended several conferences aimed at stabilizing Iraq, where Iran was also invited. Rice exchanged pleasantries with Iran's foreign minister at those events, but never had a substantive conversation with him.

The United States is at loggerheads with Iran on a range of issues, from its support for militant groups to a nuclear program, which Washington says is aimed at building an atomic bomb. Tehran says its program is for peaceful power purposes.

Wood said the Obama administration was in the midst of a full review of its strategy towards Iran and he could not give details of how engagement with Iran might ultimately unfold.

"Before we engage in a real dialogue with Iran on a number of these issues, we need to finish our review. And I think that's only fair," Wood said.

Clinton plans at The Hague conference to give details on a U.S. review of its strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is expected to be rolled out in the next week.

Clinton, with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband at her side, told reporters she would have a "thorough discussion" with allies leading up to the March 31st meeting in The Hague on how to move forward on Afghanistan.