By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
THE HAGUE, March 31 -- The Obama administration began putting its hopes of building a new relationship with Iran into action Tuesday, signaling an ambitious push to create an atmosphere of trust after three decades of animosity.
With an international conference on the future of Afghanistan as the backdrop, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton authorized an unusual direct appeal to Iran over the fate of three Americans. Meanwhile, Richard C. Holbrooke, a senior U.S. diplomat, met briefly with a top Iranian official, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh.
At a news conference, Clinton also praised as "promising" Akhundzadeh's remarks on counter-narcotics efforts and border security for Afghanistan.
"We will look for ways to cooperate with them," she said.
The outreach to Iran at the conference on Afghanistan, attended by more than 80 countries and organizations, built on President Obama's televised greeting last month in honor of the Persian New Year, in which he called for a "new beginning" between the two countries.
Administration officials have viewed Afghanistan as an important test case for discovering whether Iran and the United States can find common interests. Although there was no dramatic breakthrough in relations Tuesday, the Obama administration is clearly probing for opportunities to work with Iran and improve the atmosphere between the longtime antagonists.
On the three U.S. citizens, Clinton said she directed that an unsigned document known as an aide-mémoire be delivered directly to the Iranian delegation. Normally, communications between the two countries are handled through the Swiss government because Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since the Iranian revolution three decades ago.
"In the letter, we asked Iran to use all its facilities to determine the whereabouts and ensure the quick and safe return of Robert Levinson. We also asked that Iran grant the release of Roxana Saberi and permission to travel for both Roxana Saberi and Esha Momeni," Clinton said. "These acts would certainly constitute a humanitarian gesture by the Islamic Republic of Iran in keeping with the spirit of renewal and generosity that marks the Persian New Year."
Levinson is a former FBI agent who went missing two years ago while on a business trip to Iran. Saberi is an Iranian American freelance journalist who has been detained since January, and Momeni is an Iranian American student who was detained last year.
Clinton notably referred to Iran by its official name, as Obama did in his New Year's address, which apparently is an effort by the administration to signify that it is not supporting regime change.
U.S. officials provided few details about the meeting between Akhundzadeh and Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. They insisted that the conversation -- the highest-level contact between Iran and the Obama administration -- was unplanned and not substantive but held the potential for further contact between the two men on Afghan issues.
At the conference, Akhundzadeh said Iran was "fully prepared" to participate in reconstruction and efforts to halt drug trafficking, but he was critical of Obama's plan to boost U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"The people of Afghanistan know their country better than anybody else does," Akhundzadeh said. "The presence of foreign forces has not improved things in the country, and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective, too."
Clinton made no direct reference to Iran in her speech at the conference, but she appealed to Afghanistan's neighbors to pitch in.
"Just as these problems cannot be solved without the Afghan people, they cannot be solved without the help of Afghanistan's neighbors," she said. "Trafficking in narcotics, the spread of violent extremism, economic stagnation, water management, electrification and irrigation are regional challenges that will require regional solutions."
Clinton also said that Taliban members in Afghanistan who abandoned extremism must be granted an "honorable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society."