Afghan Conference Sets Scene For U.S.-Iran Meeting

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Officials from more than 80 nations gathered in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday to discuss Afghanistan. The conference offered an opportunity for the Obama administration to have high-level contacts with officials from Iran.


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Representatives from more than 80 countries gathered in The Hague today. The topic of discussion was Afghanistan. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the conference also offered the Obama administration a unique opportunity to have high level contacts with officials from Iran.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't personally meet with the Iranian deputy foreign minister but she says the U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, did make a point of it.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): It was cordial, it was unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch.

KELEMEN: That wasn't the only unusual diplomatic contact at today's conference. Secretary Clinton said the U.S. gave the Iranians a letter focusing on three U.S. citizens, including former FBI agent Robert Levinson who is believed to be in Iran, though Iran has never acknowledged that.

Sec. CLINTON: In the letter we asked Iran to use all of 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.

KELEMEN: Saberi is a freelance reporter who has contributed to NPR and Momeni is a researcher studying women's rights. Clinton said, allowing them to leave Iran would be a humanitarian gesture by the Tehran government. As for the topic of today's conference here, Afghanistan, Clinton said she liked what she heard from the Iranian deputy foreign minister when he addressed the meeting.

Sec. CLINTON: The questions of border security and in particular the transit of narcotics across the border from Afghanistan to Iran is a worry that the Iranian have, which we share. And we will look for ways to cooperate with them and I think the fact that they came today is a promising sign.

KELEMEN: The Iranian envoy Mohammad Mehdi Akhounzadeh did say his country is ready to help international efforts to combat drug trafficking. But he also raised concerns about the increasing foreign troop presence in Afghanistan, one of Iran's neighbors.

Mr. MOHAMMAD MEHDI AKHOUNZADEH (Deputy Foreign Minister, Iran): 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. The military expenses need to be redirected to the training of the Afghan police and army.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton updated the conference on the Obama administration's plan to send more military trainers as well as combat troops to Afghanistan and she urged others to pitch in as well. She also told the more than 80 nations gathered at The Hague to do more to help prepare Afghanistan for elections and route out corruption, which she called a cancer.

Sec. CLINTON: We must also support the efforts by the government of Afghanistan to separate the extremists of al-Qaida and the Taliban from those who join their ranks not out of conviction but out of desperation. This is in fact the case for a majority of those fighting with the Taliban.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton said members of the Taliban should be offered, as she put it, an honorable form of reconciliation if they're willing to break with al-Qaida. That, and her overtures to Iran were all part of her effort to show that the Obama administration is taking a fresh approach to Afghanistan and the region.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, The Hague.

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