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U.S. Says Iran Expected To Be Included In Afghan Talks


The conference proposed by Secretary of State Clinton would be Washington's first concrete step toward resuming official diplomatic contacts with Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has proposed a high-level international conference on Afghanistan to be sponsored by the United Nations and attended by a wide range of countries, including Pakistan and possibly Iran.

Clinton says the March 31 meeting would include "key regional and strategic countries," as well as NATO members and other world powers and international groups.

The proposed conference would be Washington’s first concrete step toward resuming official diplomatic contacts with Iran. The two countries have not had formal relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The conference, which would reportedly take place later this month in the Netherlands, would offer an official and public venue for face-to-face meetings between Iranian and U.S. officials. It follows a pledge by U.S. President Barack Obama to review U.S. policy toward Iran in an effort to engage with Tehran.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the possible meeting during talks on March 5 with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

"If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited as a neighbor of Afghanistan," she said.

Later, the White House expressed hope that if Iran attended the meeting, it would come with "constructive solutions and ideas."

Iran has not yet offered any official reaction.

'Not Rejected'

In an interview with RFE/RL, Saeed Rajayi Khorasani, a former Iranian envoy to the United Nations, says Iran is likely to attend the meeting.

"I think Mrs. Clinton’s invitation would not be rejected by Iran because it deals with the issue of Afghanistan," Khorasani said. "We have a common border with Afghanistan."

Former U.S. diplomats have said that Iran played a constructive role during the 2001 UN-backed Bonn conference, where a framework for post-Taliban Afghanistan was agreed.

A number of observers and experts have called on Washington to engage Iran in areas of mutual interest such as Afghanistan, where the United States plans to deploy an additional 17,000 troops in a bid to curb the growing insurgency.

Ahmad Behzad is a member of the International Relations Committee of the Afghan parliament. He tells RFE/RL that including Kabul’s neighbors in talks aimed at ending “foreign interference" in Afghanistan is a positive step.

“Unfortunately, part of Iran’s support for groups such as the Taliban stems from disagreements that exist between Iran and the United States on issues that are not related to the Afghan crisis, such as Iran’s nuclear program," Behzad said.

Iran denies reports it is interfering in Afghan affairs. Iranian leaders have repeatedly said they’re committed to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Iran says it is suffering as the result of the opium production in the neighboring country.

Some experts say Afghanistan could be a good issue on which to begin dialogue between Tehran and Washington -- and to pave the way for talks on other issues, such as Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities.

Iran has ignored UN resolutions calling on it to halt uranium enrichment, which can be used for both civilian and military technology. Iranian officials say Iran has a right to enrich uranium.

Mixed Signals

In Tehran, former UN envoy Rajayi Khorasani says Iran is not ready to negotiate on its nuclear program.

“Regarding the nuclear issue, our positions will not change. That’s it. [The U.S.] shouldn’t be concerned, nor is it up to us to allay their concerns,” Khorasani said.

Iranian officials have so far offered mixed signals on the new U.S. opening toward their country.

Clinton herself has expressed doubt that Iran will respond to U.S. overtures.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he hoped Iran would be at the meeting but noted Tehran failed to attend recent French talks on Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Italy has announced that Foreign Minister Franco Frattini delayed a visit to Tehran after Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made “unacceptable statements” about Israel and the U.S. administration. Frattini and his Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki reportedly had been expected to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Earlier this week, Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor" and accused Obama of following "the same wrong path as the Bush administration" by supporting Israel. He also called on Muslims to join the Palestinian “resistance against Israel” -- a call that Clinton condemned as interference in the internal affairs of the Palestinians.