AP: Iran used an ancient new year celebration to reach out to Afghanistan, Iraq and other neighbors on Saturday, hosting them at a summit meeting that projected Iranian leadership in the strategic region straddling the Middle East and Central Asia. The Associated Press
By ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran used an ancient new year celebration to reach out to Afghanistan, Iraq and other neighbors on Saturday, hosting them at a summit meeting that projected Iranian leadership in the strategic region straddling the Middle East and Central Asia.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it was the first of what he hoped would be yearly gatherings to mark the Nowruz celebrations and promote closer ties with the six neighboring nations where the holiday is celebrated by Farsi-speaking communities.
"That Nowruz promotes affection and social contacts among the people is one of many characteristics of this festival," Ahmadinejad said in a speech broadcast on state TV.
In particular, the president has looked recently to come closer to Afghanistan, where Iran is wary of a long-term U.S. military presence.
Earlier this month, Ahmadinejad made his second visit to Afghanistan as president. During the visit, Ahmadinejad criticized Washington's policies in the country, arguing that the United States was playing a "double game" in fighting militants it had supported decades earlier in their battle against the Soviets.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was among those attending Saturday's events in Tehran. The other nations were Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iraq, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
President Jalal Talabani represented Iraq, where full parliamentary election results released Friday gave a leading edge to a Shiite candidate who has been less friendly toward Tehran than some of Iraq's other top political figures.
Ayad Allawi, who was an interim prime minister after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, leads a secular, anti-Iranian coalition that won the most seats in the March 7 election.
Nowruz, which means "new day" in Farsi, is a spring festival of Persian origin that began on March 21 and continues until early April.
Nowruz, the day of the vernal equinox, is celebrated by more than 300 million people worldwide as the beginning of the new year. The celebration predates Islam, going back thousands of years to the time when Zoroastrianism — with its central theme of the struggle between good and evil spirits — was the predominant religion of ancient Persia.
Under the Achamenid dynasty, which ruled about 2,500 years ago, Persia stretched from the Indus River to Egypt, to central Asia, forming the largest empire on earth until that date.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon suggested that the Nowruz gathering be held next year at Persepolis in southern Iran, the spring capital of the Achamenid kingdom, where the kings hosted Nowruz celebrations.
"Nowruz, with a history of 6,000 years, promotes the message of unity, honesty and happiness," he told the meeting.
Hard-line Iranian clerics have discouraged some elements of Nowruz that they consider pagan festivals, but their guidance is not heeded.