BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In its first public overture to Tehran, the Obama administration intends to invite Iran to an international conference on Afghanistan planned for this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Thursday.
“If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited as a neighbour of Afghanistan,” Clinton told a news conference in Brussels after meeting NATO foreign ministers.
President Barack Obama, in a dramatic turnaround from Bush administration policy, has said the United States wants to engage Iran on a range of issues and the conference invitation would be the start of diplomatic outreach to Tehran.
Clinton proposed the conference, which brings in Afghanistan’s other neighbours including Pakistan and other major players, would take place on March 31.
“It is a way of bringing all the stakeholders and interested parties together,” said Clinton.
Iran borders Afghanistan and worked closely with the United States after the U.S. military offensive there to topple the Taliban and fight al Qaeda following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
The United States is at loggerheads with Iran on a range of issues, including its nuclear programme which Washington says is aimed at building an atomic bomb. Tehran says its programme is for peaceful power purposes.
“Our task is to dissuade them, deter them and prevent from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Clinton said.
Clinton is set to meet Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday in Geneva and she said Iran’s nuclear programme would be a big topic, adding that she would raise Russia’s discussions with Tehran on longer range missiles.
“We will also raise with Russia, their continuing discussions with Iran about selling longer-range missiles which we think are a threat to Russia as well as to Europe and neighbours in the region,” she said.
The United States is doing a full policy review of the traditional isolation policy of Iran, including whether to open up a low-level diplomatic office in Tehran.
The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, in which a group of militant Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage at the American embassy for 444 days.
The Bush administration had contacts with Iran over Afghanistan in the past and last year its point person on Iran joined major powers for talks in Geneva over an incentives package to get Tehran to give up sensitive nuclear work.
Analysts and diplomats have predicted that the Obama team was likely to begin a dialogue with Iran on issues such as Afghanistan, where the United States is trying to turn around a war it risks losing and where it plans to send an additional 17,000 troops.
In Washington, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry interrupted a hearing to tell senators that he received news via Blackberry that the United States had invited Iran to attend a conference on Afghanistan.
“It’s wise to be inclusive,” said Kerry, who is among many lawmakers who have been pushing for the United States to speak to rather than shun its enemies.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the conference would probably be held in the Netherlands but U.S. officials said a final decision had not yet been made on the location and details were still being worked out over the exact form of the meeting.
Italy, which heads the Group of Eight (G8) presidency, also plans to hold a conference on Afghanistan later this year and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who met Clinton last month, has said previously he was considering inviting Iran to attend.
Shortly after Clinton’s announcement, Frattini cancelled a trip to Tehran slated for next week. Italy’s foreign ministry said Frattini sought a “more fruitful context” to reschedule talks about Afghanistan, without elaborating.
It also cited “unacceptable” comments by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who on Wednesday called Israel a “cancerous tumour” and accused Obama of pursuing the same “wrong path” as former president George W. Bush in supporting the Jewish state.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander and David Brunnstrom