By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009
BRUSSELS, March 5 -- In the Obama administration's first specific overture to Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that the Islamic republic should be invited to a high-level conference on Afghanistan later this month being organized under U.S. auspices.
The meeting would offer Clinton her first face-to-face encounter with her Iranian counterpart, even as the administration confronts Iran over its links to terrorist groups and its nuclear program. Throughout her tour of the Middle East and Europe this week, Clinton has mixed tough talk about Iranian behavior with expressions of hope that areas of cooperation can be found, frequently citing Afghanistan.
Clinton's trip has been dominated by efforts to reach out to governments that had strained relations with the Bush administration. She dispatched envoys to Syria, pushed for a rapprochement between Russia and NATO and has now publicly offered Iran an opening.
Many details about the meeting on Afghanistan, expected to be held March 31, are still being worked out, but U.S. officials said the conclave is intended both to help implement a U.S. strategic review, which will be completed mid-month, and to set the stage for a NATO summit in early April.
Clinton announced the plan for the meeting during a gathering of NATO foreign ministers, telling reporters it would be "a big-tent meeting with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan."
U.S. officials said that Clinton's announcement was intended to sway some countries that had favored a much smaller gathering consisting of countries supplying troops plus Japan, a major contributor.
While Afghanistan was discussed at the NATO gathering Thursday, the ministers spent much of their time hashing out an agreement to normalize relations with Russia after a seven-month freeze. The plan to restart high-level meetings of the NATO-Russia Council initially faced fierce objections from Lithuania as premature, prompting hours of debate in the hallways and in ministerial meetings.
"I don't think we punish Russia by stopping conversations with them," Clinton said. "What we have to be is willing to vigorously press the differences that we have while seeking common ground wherever possible."
Clinton told NATO foreign ministers that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had been asked to open the conference, and that it would be chaired by Kai Eide, Ban's special representative for Afghanistan. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said the Netherlands had been asked to host the event.
Clinton said the meeting would bring together the foreign ministers of a broad selection of nations, including NATO countries, non-NATO countries contributing troops to Afghanistan, financial contributors, international organizations and "key regional and strategic countries" such as Pakistan and Iran.
Vice President Biden plans to visit Brussels next week for consultations with NATO officials, seeking final input for a strategic review that will be rolled out the following week. Clinton, in her speech to the foreign ministers, laid out some of the key concepts of the emerging Obama plan, including treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as a "single strategic concern" and saying that "any long-term solution will require the participation of all of Afghanistan's neighbors."
Bringing Iran to the table would mark a return to the cooperation immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Iranian officials were instrumental in helping set up a new government in Kabul. But initially promising consultations between the two governments ended after then-President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of an "axis of evil" in the 2002 State of the Union address.
"Iran borders Afghanistan," Clinton told reporters traveling with her as she flew to Belgium on Wednesday from Israel. "In the early days of the military efforts by the United States and our allies to go after the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Iran was consulting with our ambassador on a daily basis. Where it is appropriate and useful for the United States and others to see whether Iran can be constructive, that will be considered."
But Iran declined to attend a conference on Afghanistan held in Paris in December. The difficulty of relations with Iran was also underscored this week by a biting speech by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he said President Obama follows "crooked ways" of Bush in supporting Israel.
In addition, Iran has detained an Iranian American reporter, 31-year-old Roxana Saberi, for about a month. Clinton, at a news conference after the NATO meetings, demanded her immediate release. Saberi was born in the United States and has reported from Iran for National Public Radio and other news organizations.
"I am very concerned about this young woman," Clinton said. "We believe there is only one outcome to this matter, and that is for her to be released as soon as possible, to return home to her family in North Dakota as soon as possible."