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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Afghan summit could bring U.S. and Iran to table

By Mark Landler

BRUSSELS: Setting up the prospect of its first face-to-face encounter with Iran, the Obama administration proposed a conference on Afghanistan later this month, which is likely to include Iran among the invited participants, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

"We presented the idea of what is being called a big-tent meeting, with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan," Clinton said at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers here.

"If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited, as a neighbor of Afghanistan," she said in a news conference at the end of the meeting.

The Netherlands is being considered as a host for the conference, which would take place March 31 and be chaired by the United Nations. Iran did not say whether it would accept an invitation.

Clinton's proposal underscores that Afghanistan may prove to be the most promising avenue for opening a channel to Iran - something President Barack Obama has made a theme of his foreign policy. On Wednesday, Clinton noted that Iran consulted frequently with the United States in the early days of the American-led war to oust the Taliban in 2001.

At the same time, she kept up an unyielding tone toward Iran, noting that the American plan to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe is driven by the threat of regimes like that in Iran, which possess long-range missiles and are seeking nuclear weapons.

"There's an ongoing debate about what the status of Iran's nuclear weapons production capacity is," Clinton said. "But I don't think there is a credible debate about their intentions."

Prodded by the United States, NATO also agreed to resume high-level consultations with Russia, six months after they had been suspended following Moscow's military offensive against Georgia.

Clinton called for a "fresh start" with Russia, even though Washington refuses to recognize two breakaway Georgian territories that prompted the war and reject Russia's assertion of "spheres of influence."

"It is time to move ahead, not wait in place with illusion that things will change on their own," she said. "It is time for realism, as well as hope."

Clinton said there were areas where NATO and Russia could work together, including Afghanistan, fighting the drug trade, and confronting nuclear proliferation, particularly in Iran and North Korea.

On Afghanistan, Clinton said, "We hope that this meeting could provide an opportunity to reach a common set of principles."

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said, "I do hope that Iran will be present this time," noting that Iran declined an invitation to a conference on Afghanistan held in Paris in December.

The United States, which has called for a "reset" in relations between the United States and Russia, worked to achieve a consensus among NATO members on resuming talks with Russia.

American diplomats persuaded Lithuania, the last holdout among NATO members, to go along rather than demand further debate at a NATO summit meeting in early April.

The NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said the resumption of high-level consultations did not mean that the alliance would drop its objections to Russia's plan to build military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two breakaway territories of Georgia.

"It's not a fair-weather forum and the weather is certainly not fair," de Hoop Scheffer said, referring to the NATO-Russia Council.

De Hoop Scheffer declined to comment on Obama's proposal to the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, that the United States drop its deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Russia agreed to cooperate in the campaign against Iran's nuclear program.
Russia welcomes NATO thaw

Russian officials immediately welcomed NATO's decision to resume ties, news agencies reported from Brussels.

"We need to get down to business fast to ensure stability and security in Afghanistan," said Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO. Russia had already demonstrated its willingness to help the war effort by arranging for the first overland transport of supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan, he added.

Before the NATO meeting, Russia had said it would allow transit of non-lethal U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan. With its supply lines under pressure from militant attacks, NATO hopes that in future such help could be extended to air transit, air lift and routes for lethal aid.

It also hopes to see Russian cooperation in encouraging Central Asian states to allow the passage of NATO supplies, and in keeping open bases used by NATO forces, one of which is about to be closed down by Kyrgyzstan.

Clinton is set to hold her first substantive talks with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Friday and agreement on resuming ties with NATO will help the atmosphere.

Lithuania, like Georgia a former Soviet republic that gained independence in 1990, argued at the NATO meeting Thursday that the Russia move required more discussion and should have awaited a NATO summit meeting April 3-4 in France, according to a senior U.S. official who revealed details of the private talks on condition that he not be identified.

Lithuania's foreign minister, Vygaudas Usackas, said it was "a bit premature" to reward Russia with restored relations with NATO.

Clinton and the others seemed to have underestimated the depth of feeling among the Lithuanians, who forced Clinton and the other foreign ministers to prolong the meeting and huddle in minister-only negotiations that dragged on well into the afternoon. The Lithuanians were finally persuaded to join the consensus.

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