AFP: The United States maintained Thursday its cautious diplomatic approach to Iran by announcing an international conference on Afghanistan with the Islamic Republic likely to be invited.
BRUSSELS (AFP) — The United States maintained Thursday its cautious diplomatic approach to Iran by announcing an international conference on Afghanistan with the Islamic Republic likely to be invited.
At her first NATO meeting, held in Brussels, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed a high-level conference to define a better way to foster reconstruction and democracy and halt a damaging Taliban-led insurgency.
She said that she hoped the meeting, set for March 31, "could provide an opportunity to reach a common set of principles, perhaps embodied in a chairman's statement, on a common way forward."
She did not say where the meeting would be held, but only that Afghan and Pakistani officials would be invited, with NATO allies, donors, international organisations and "key regional and strategic" nations.
It was only after a remark by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who said that he hoped Iran would be invited, and when questioned that Clinton mentioned the Islamic Republic in public.
"If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited as a neighbour of Afghanistan," she told reporters, after meeting here with her NATO counterparts.
By declaring that the United States would sit side by side with Iran by the end of the month, Washington is making an important gesture toward Tehran, with whom US President Barack Obama has pledged to engage in dialogue with.
But the meeting will be held under United Nations auspices, which could allow Washington to deny any responsibility should the conference fail, or the invitation be rejected.
"We are in the process of discussing with the UN the possibility that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon could open the conference and that his special representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide could chair the meeting," Clinton said.
To put even more distance between them, the conference venue is likely to be in The Hague or Brussels, according to senior NATO officials.
In December, Iran shunned a similar French-hosted conference, failing to send its envoy to Paris for an event aimed at persuading Afghanistan's neighbours to play a greater role in restoring stability in the war-torn state.
This despite the fact that the Islamic republic is suffering badly from the effects of opium production in Afghanistan, with easily available heroin fuelling a rise in drug use.
Iran, which has close ethnic and religious ties with Afghanistan, has also opposed the Taliban, comprised of Sunni Muslim extremists and backed by Pakistan until the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "Obviously Afghanistan is something that presents a great challenge, not just for our country, but for the rest of the world."
"I would expect that Iran would be invited as a neighbor and that we hope, if they decide to come, that they bring constructive solutions and ideas in working with the international community to address the challenges."
Asked whether Clinton or other US officials would meet directly with Iranian envoys to the conference, Gibbs said it was too far down the road to contemplate.
Since 2007, Washington has put more emphasis on a "comprehensive approach" to international action in Afghanistan, which faces presidential elections in August, combining investment and reform with the use of force.
The idea of involving Iran in those efforts could be a way for the new US administration to ease its way into other thornier dossiers like Tehran's nuclear programme.
But in a sign of its cautiousness, Washington has not hesitated to send strong messages Tehran's way.
On Wednesday, Clinton accused Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of interference by urging Muslims to join the Palestinian "resistance" against Israel.