Iran, US to attend Afghan peace meeting

Hillary Clinton to represent US at Tuesday's conference, Iran will send its deputy foreign minister.

Clinton looks down 224.8 (photo credit: AP)
Clinton looks down 224.8
(photo credit: AP)
An international conference on pacifying Afghanistan will include two unlikely partners for peace - the United States and Iran. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend the UN-sponsored conference Tuesday in the Netherlands. And a Dutch diplomat said Monday that Iran will send its deputy foreign minister, Medhi Akhundzadeh, to the meeting, as well. The diplomat, who is helping to organize the meeting, spoke on condition of anonymity because Akhundzadeh's visit had not yet been announced. Bringing Clinton and the Iranian delegation together will mark a step toward increased diplomatic engagement between Washington and Tehran. But don't expect the two governments to work hand-in-glove. Last week, the US State Department ruled out any "substantive meeting" between US and Iranian officials. "The Iranians have not always played a helpful role in Afghanistan," said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid. But he said he hoped the presence of Iranian officials at the conference could mean that is changing. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has urged the U.S. and other members of the Western military alliance to engage with Iran to combat Taliban militants in Afghanistan. He also said that Russia does not want to see a resurgence of fundamentalism in Central Asia. Iran, dominated by Shiite Muslims, has long opposed the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban. Iran also hosts a large population of Afghan refugees and fighting the smuggling of Afghan heroin across its territory. The conference, in The Hague, comes just days after President Barack Obama announced a new strategy for fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, which shares a 580-mile (930-kilometer) border with Iran. The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 deposed the Taliban and sent many of its al-Qaida allies fleeing into Pakistan. But the Taliban and al-Qaida have made a comeback in Afghanistan, and often launch cross-border attacks from Pakistan, as well. Roughly 65,000 international troops are in Afghanistan - more than half from the US. Obama proposes to increase the number of American troops there to about 60,000 by this summer. He will also send in hundreds of civilians and increase development aid. In return, Obama says Pakistan must be willing to take on extremists within its borders and Afghanistan must tackle government corruption, which is eroding support for President Hamid Karzai's administration. Obama has said he expects new troop commitments from other NATO nations. He will fly to Europe this week for a NATO meeting at which some allies are expected to promise more troops. But few people expect those announcements to involve troops going to fight in southern Afghanistan, the country's most dangerous area. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, whose country has more than 1,600 troops in the southern province of Uruzgan, said Tuesday's conference will focus not on more money and troops for Afghanistan, but on a strategy for bringing peace and stability to the country. More than 80 countries and non-governmental organizations are expected to attend the meeting, co-hosted by Verhagen, Karzai and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.