Setting up the prospect of its first face-to-face encounter with Iran, the Obama administration has proposed a major conference on Afghanistan later this month that would include Iran among the invited countries, 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,” she said at a news conference here after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. “If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited, as a neighbor of Afghanistan.”
Prodded by the United States, NATO’s 27 members also agreed to resume high-level relations with Russia, which were suspended last August after Russia’s military offensive against Georgia.
The United States has asked the Netherlands to act as host for the Afghanistan conference, which would take place on March 31 and be chaired by the United Nations. Iran did not say Thursday whether it would accept an invitation.
Clinton’s proposal underscores the administration’s belief that Afghanistan may provide the most promising avenue for opening a diplomatic channel to Iran — something that President Barack Obama has made a major goal of his foreign policy.
Earlier this week, Clinton said Iran could play a useful role in stabilizing Afghanistan, noting that its officials consulted regularly with the United States in the early days of the war to oust the Taliban in 2001.
At the same time, she kept up an unyielding tone toward the Iranian regime. The U.S. plan to install a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Clinton said, is driven in part by the threat of Iran, which possesses long-range missiles and is trying to build up its nuclear program.
“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.”
Her approach reflects the administration’s policy of mixing carrots and sticks with Iran — extending offers as a path to engagement but also maintaining a hard line on issues like nuclear weapons.
The proposed conference would give the United States a venue to present the results of its Afghanistan policy review to its NATO allies. The review is to be completed by the middle of March, State Department officials said.
Next week, Vice President Joe Biden will meet with officials at NATO to offer further details of the emerging U.S. policy, which Clinton outlined in broad strokes on Thursday.
Clinton said the international community must view Afghanistan and Pakistan as a “single strategic concern.” She described the border region between the two countries as the “nerve center” for the 9/11 attacks; the bombings in Madrid and London; the assassination of the former Pakistani leader, Benazir Bhutto; and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.