Iran dismissed US government reports that senior US and Iranian envoys had a cordial — and promising — face-to-face exchange at an international conference, saying on Wednesday that no “talks” took place.
The competing accounts of Tuesday’s encounter in the Netherlands appeared to reflect the different approaches to overtures to end the US’ and Iran’s nearly 30-year diplomatic standoff.
Washington has seemed eager to build on US President Barack Obama’s surprise video message last month to seek engagement with Iran’s ruling clerics. Iran has — in public, at least — been far cooler to making immediate contacts, but has not fully rejected some openings in the future.
Iran’s take on The Hague conference was just as nuanced — not flatly denying that senior US diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Iranian diplomat Mehdi Akhundzadeh met at a conference to discuss Afghanistan, but concentrating on the semantics of whether official talks took place.
“Maybe this — the report on the meeting by the US — indicates that the other party is hasty to take advantage of the conference,” Akhundzadeh was quoted by the Islamic Republic news agency (IRNA).
The statement noted that any exchange that occurred at the conference on Afghanistan was not comparable with official talks, such as the ambassador-level meetings between the US and Iran to discuss Iraq.
“Rest assured,” IRNA quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Akhundzadeh as saying “that if there is a decision to have talks with US, like the talks on Iraq, all will be informed about it. There is nothing to hide.”
In Washington, the Us State Department insisted on Wednesday that Holbrooke met with the Iranian envoy. Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said there was a “brief handshake” on the edge of the conference — but added it was not a lengthy encounter.
“To describe it as substantive or even lengthy would be inaccurate, that is true. It was an engagement for Mr. Holbrooke,” Duguid told reporters.
Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz interpreted the Iranian response as trying to deflect any domestic suspicions of secret contacts.
The issue of outreach to Washington is particularly sensitive before the June 12 presidential elections. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is seeking another four-year term, is careful not to anger his hardline base with the suggestion of a quick outreach to the Obama administration.
“Iran is carefully approaching the issue since confirmation of the meeting will have consequences inside Iran and the Islamic World. For more than one generation, Iran has portrayed the US as the main enemy,” he said. “Anti-American slogans by Iran will last for years even if the two countries resume ties.”
Significantly, Tuesday’s reported meeting took place in an international conference on Afghanistan — an issue many analysts believe was the most promising place to start in any thawing of US-Iranian relations. Iran was a longtime foe of the Taliban and the two nations cooperated in 2001 in the initial US invasion.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the encounter as encouraging but not “substantive.”
“They agreed to stay in touch,” Clinton said at the close of the conference on Afghan security and development on Tuesday.
Last month, Obama offered to begin “honest” talks with Iran’s leaders in a clear break of past US policy to shun the ruling clerics and encourage pro-Western dissidents in Iran. In response, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected the overtures for a quick thaw in relations, but did not fully close the door on some future contacts, saying “should you change, our behavior will change, too.”