New York Times: Setting up the prospect of its first face-to-face encounter with Iran, the Obama administration has proposed a major conference on Afghanistan this month that would include Iran among the invited countries, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.
The New York Times
By MARK LANDLER
Published: March 5, 2009
BRUSSELS — Setting up the prospect of its first face-to-face encounter with Iran, the Obama administration has proposed a major conference on Afghanistan this month that would include Iran among the invited countries, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.
“We presented the idea of what is being called a big-tent meeting, with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan,” she said at a news conference here after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. “If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited, as a neighbor of Afghanistan.”
Prodded by the United States, NATO’s 26 members also agreed to resume high-level relations with Russia, which were suspended in August after the war between Russia and Georgia.
The United States has asked the Netherlands to host the Afghanistan conference, which would take place on March 31, with the United Nations acting as chairman. Iran did not say on Thursday whether it would accept an invitation.
Mrs. Clinton’s proposal underscores the administration’s belief that Afghanistan may provide the most promising avenue for opening a diplomatic channel to Iran — a major goal of President Obama’s foreign policy.
Mrs. Clinton said this week that Iran could play a useful role in stabilizing Afghanistan, noting that its officials consulted regularly with the United States in the early days of the war to oust the Taliban in 2001.
At the same time, she kept up an unyielding tone toward the Iranian leadership. The American plan to install a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Mrs. Clinton said, is driven in part by the threat of Iran, which possesses long-range missiles and is trying to build up its nuclear program.
“There’s an ongoing debate about what the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons production capacity is,” Mrs. Clinton said. “But I don’t think there is a credible debate about their intentions.”
Her approach reflects the administration’s policy of mixing carrots and sticks with Iran — extending offers as a path to engagement, but also maintaining a hard line on issues like nuclear weapons.
The proposed conference would give the United States a forum to present the results of its Afghanistan policy review to its NATO allies. The review is expected to be completed by the middle of March, State Department officials said.
Next week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will meet with officials at NATO to offer further details of the emerging American policy, which Mrs. Clinton outlined broadly on Thursday.
She said the international community must view Afghanistan and Pakistan as a “single strategic concern.” She called the border region between the countries the “nerve center” for the Sept. 11 attacks; the bombings in Madrid and London; the assassination of the former Pakistani leader, Benazir Bhutto; and the assault on Mumbai, India.
Countering that threat will demand a regional approach and a more integrated civilian and military strategy, she said. It will also require the involvement of all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, she said.
The United Nations plans to send its special representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, to be chairman of the conference, though United Nations officials said Mrs. Clinton had gotten somewhat ahead of them in the planning process. There is debate about the scope of the guest list, administration officials said, with some countries arguing to include only those with troops in Afghanistan, as well as Japan.
But the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said, “I do hope that Iran will be present this time,” noting that it did not attend a conference on Afghanistan held in Paris last year.
On another matter involving Iran, Mrs. Clinton said the United States was pressing Tehran on the case of Roxana Saberi, 31, an American freelance journalist who has been detained by Iranian authorities for more than a month on charges that she was reporting without press credentials. Lacking diplomatic ties to Iran, the State Department is working through Swiss intermediaries to secure her release.
The visit to NATO was Mrs. Clinton’s first as secretary of state, and she covered a wide swath of topics. Echoing recent remarks by Mr. Biden, she called for a “fresh start” with Russia, even though she said the United States would reject any Russian assertion that it had “spheres of influence” — meaning former Soviet republics like Georgia.
“It is time to move ahead, not wait in place with the illusion that things will change on their own,” she declared.
There are several areas where NATO and Russia can work together, she said, including Afghanistan, the drug trade fight, and efforts to stop nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea.
On Friday, Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to meet in Geneva with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov. He is expected to respond to Mr. Obama’s proposal to the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, of flexibility on the United States’ planned missile defense system, while also seeking Russia’s cooperation in the campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.
The United States had to work hard to achieve a consensus among NATO members on resuming talks with Russia. American diplomats were in the hallways lobbying Lithuania, the last holdout, to go along at a NATO summit meeting in April.
NATO’s secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said the resumption of high-level consultations did not mean the alliance would drop its objections to Russia’s plan to build military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian regions that prompted the war in August. “It’s not a fair-weather forum, and the weather is certainly not fair,” he said.
Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from the United Nations.