In a cautious first step toward unlocking 30 years of tense relations, senior US diplomat Richard Holbrooke had a brief but cordial meeting with Iran’s deputy foreign minister at an international conference on Afghanistan.
The rare diplomatic approach on Tuesday was the first official face-to-face interplay between the administration of US President Barack Obama and the Iranian regime. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cautioned that the talks between Holbrooke and Iranian diplomat Mehdi Akhundzadeh were promising but not “substantive.”
“They agreed to stay in touch,” Clinton said at the close of a one-day conference on Afghan security and development that was designed partly to allow the diplomatic turn with Iran.
The meeting between Holbrooke — Obama’s hand-picked Afghanistan envoy — and Akhundzadeh came on the sidelines of a session aimed at improving Afghanistan’s future prospects.
Akhundzadeh pledged to help the reconstruction of its neighbor, but he criticized US plans to send more troops into Afghanistan.
The gathering was being closely watched for signs that the US and Iran can work together on a common problem after years of hostility. The two countries cooperated at a distance in 2001 and 2002 after US-led forces ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban government.
The US and Iran have been estranged for 30 years, since young Iranians stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage for 444 days. Representatives of the two nations are rarely even in the same room with one another, but they have had accidental-on-purpose public meetings on the sidelines of other international gatherings.
The face-to-face pleasantries, along with a diplomatic letter hand-delivered to the Iranian delegation by a US official, were carefully calibrated overtures from the Obama administration aimed at testing the clerical regime’s willingness to take larger steps.
Afghanistan and Iran share nearly 1,000km of border, and Clinton said the US and Afghanistan share concern over the flow of drugs into Iran.
“We will look for ways to cooperate with them and I think the fact that they came today, that they intervened today, is a promising sign that there will be future cooperations,” she said.
The diplomatic letter, which Clinton and aides would not describe in detail, asked for Iran’s help in releasing or lifting travel restrictions on two American women in Iran, and information on a man missing for two years since traveling to Iran on business.
The cases and the US position on them were known. What is different was the Obama administration’s decision to approach Iran directly, instead of using a go-between.
Information or help from Tehran “would constitute a humanitarian gesture by the Iranians in keeping with the spirit of renewal and generosity that marks the Persian new year,” Clinton said.
Obama sent an unusual video message to mark the Iranian new year last month.
The conference opens a week of diplomatic gatherings in Europe where Obama is also expected to try for a fresh start in the bumpy US relationship with Russia. Numerous US allies have encouraged a better relationship with oil-rich and strategic Iran.
As a candidate, Obama said he would reach out to Iran, and even hold direct talks with its leaders, if he decided it would serve US interests.