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The US made diplomatic overtures to Iran at a one-day conference on Afghanistan in The Hague Tuesday, where the Islamic Republic said it would help rebuild Afghanistan but criticized the Obama administration's proposed troop increases. The US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations in almost three decades.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was rare high-level contact between Richard Holbrooke, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Mehdi Akhundzadeh. But Iran's foreign ministry denied that any meeting took place.
Western officials say Tuesday's overtures, made against the backdrop of the Obama administration's new push for Afghan security, are an encouraging sign that efforts to reach out to Iran may bear fruit. But differences between the two old adversaries remain, and Iran appears resistant to admitting to a warming of ties.
Clinton said the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, met briefly with Iranian deputy foreign minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh on the sidelines of the Hague conference.
"It did not focus on anything substantive. It was cordial, it was unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch," Clinton said.
While Western officials were treating Tuesday's diplomatic breakthrough as a sign of a new beginning with an old foe, the Iranian government appeared to have a very different interpretation. Agence France-Presse reports that the Iranian foreign ministry denied that any meeting had taken place or that a letter had been delivered.
"No meeting or talks... be it formal or informal, official or unofficial between Iran and US officials took place on the sidelines of this conference," [Foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi] told Mehr [news agency].
"We categorically deny the reports published in this regard. As no meeting or talks took place, naturally no letter was handed to Iran from the American side."
On the issue of Afghanistan's reconstruction, Time reports that Mr. Akhundzadeh said "Iran is fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and plans in line with developing and reconstructing Afghanistan."
But using careful diplomatic language, Akhundzadeh also denounced Obama's plans to supplement America's 70,000 troops in Afghanistan with 17,000 more, in addition to 4,000 soldiers assigned to train the Afghan army, says the San Francisco Chronicle.
"The people of Afghanistan know their country better than anybody else does," Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh said, speaking in English Tuesday before a group of diplomats that included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "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 conference, which drew together representatives of 83 nations to emphasize the international effort behind the reconstruction of Afghanistan, follows last Friday's announcement of renewed efforts to confront instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which President Obama warned that Al Qaeda "is actively planning attacks on the US homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan," The New York Times reports.
President Obama promised neither to write a "blank check" nor to "blindly stay the course" if his risky new strategy, which includes the addition of 4,000 troops in a training role and several benchmarks for judging progress, does not achieve its ambitious goals. He had already ordered 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan soon after taking office.
Shortly after Mr. Obama's speech on Friday, Richard C. Holbrooke, the president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, noted the corrosive role of instability and terrorist safe havens in western Pakistan, and said that the United States could not abandon the region.
"We can leave as the Afghans deal with their own security problems," Mr. Holbrooke said. "That's what the president put emphasis on today on training the national army, training the policy."
"The exit strategy," he went on, "includes governance, corruption, but above all, and this is the single most difficult aspect of what we are talking about today, it requires dealing with Western Pakistan."
Read the administration's white paper on US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan here.
Clinton was a strong proponent of Iranian participation in the conference, and British and US reaction to their presence was positive. Speaking to reporters, Clinton called it "a promising sign that there will be future co-operation," says The Guardian.
"These are just tentative beginnings. This might be spring in the relationship. There may well be some winter frosts left to come as well," Lord Malloch Brown, representing Britain at the conference, cautioned afterwards.
However, he said the Iranian role at The Hague could represent a turning point. Since 2002, he said, "Afghan strategy has been fought with one hand tied behind our backs."
"There is a completeness to having them back at the table," he added. "There is a meeting of minds on drugs, development issues and the [August Afghan] elections, though not on foreign troops, on which they made clear their objections."
The Associated Press reports that the letter Clinton says the US delivered to Iran requested help locating three Americans who have been arrested or disappeared there in recent years. Those are Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent turned private investigator, and two Iranian-Americans, journalist Roxana Saberi and graduate student Esha Momeni.
The AP reports that Levinson "disappeared" while investigating cigarette smuggling for his private security firm and has not been seen or heard from in two years. He was last seen on Iran's Kish Island on March 8, 2007.
The others are dual nationals who were arrested by Iranian security forces. Ms. Saberi was detained on Feb. 10 when her press credentials expired, and Ms. Momeni, a women's rights advocate, was jailed on a traffic violation on October 15.