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US invites Iran to join Afghan talks

March 5, 2009

by James Blitz, Daniel Dombey, & Guy Dinmore | FT.com

The Obama administration on Thursday marked a clear break with George W. Bush’s policy of isolating Iran by declaring its intention to invite the Islamic republic to an international conference on stabilising Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, announced in Brussels that Tehran was likely to be invited to a meeting that would bring together all “interested parties” on Afghanistan. Administration officials later confirmed Iran would be on the guest list.

Iran has already signalled its willingness to attend. A firm date for the conference has not been fixed. Italy, as holder of the G8 presidency this year, has proposed hosting such a conference in Trieste in June.

But in a sign that the western powers are not rushing to engage Iran, Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, decided to postpone a visit to Tehran he was due to make next week. Mr Frattini would have been the most senior official from a European Union state to visit Iran during the hardline presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is running for re-election in June.

Only last week Mrs Clinton had made no objection to Mr Frattini’s plan to visit Tehran when they met in Washington. European diplomats said pressure from the UK, France and Germany – which had been furious at Mr Frattini’s initiative – led to the postponement. Israel, which has close ties with Italy’s centre-right government, was also opposed.

The US continues to emphasise its determination to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, which it says is intended to give Tehran nuclear weapons capability.

But western diplomats say talks with Iran on Afghanistan would show there are areas where Washington and Tehran have mutual interests. If successful, the move would restore links between the US and Iran that came to an end after Mr Bush denounced the Islamic Republic in 2002 as part of an “axis of evil”.

“If you are going to have a regional conference on Afghanistan you have to include the country that is on their western border,” said one administration official. “Whether or not Iran is prepared to play a positive role is another question.”

The Iranian regime is a longstanding enemy of the Taliban and has long sought western co-operation to stem opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

The US move comes as Washington seeks to piece together a strategy on Afghanistan ahead of a Nato summit on April 3-4, and contrasts with Mr Bush’s thwarting in 2006 of French efforts to establish a “contact group” on Afghanistan that included Iran.

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