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US, Iranian Diplomats Break The Ice

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UPDATE: In the first high-level talks between the countries in many years, senior U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke briefly met with Iran's deputy foreign minister Tuesday at an international conference on Afghanistan.

According to CBS News:

The rare diplomatic approach was the first official face-to-face interplay between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cautioned that the talks between Holbrooke and Iranian diplomat Mehdi Akhundzadeh were promising but not "substantive."

"They agreed to stay in touch," Clinton said at the close of a one-day conference on Afghan security and development that was designed partly to allow the diplomatic turn with Iran.

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In a surprising but welcome gesture, Iran's Hague summit representative offered NATO and the US Iran's help in rebuilding Afghanistan Tuesday. Iran's envoy, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, expressed support for the Obama administration's new Afghan strategy, which will focus specifically on the Taliban and al-Queda elements in that country rather than on a broad nation-building effort. More specifically, however, Iran said it welcomes the US strategy because it will serve its own interests in fighting the heavy drug trafficking on the Iranian-Afghani border. From the Telegraph:

"Welcoming the proposals for joint cooperation offered by the countries contributing to Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and plans in line with developing and reconstructing Afghanistan," Akhundzadeh, one of Iran's deputy foreign ministers, said, according to an early text of his remarks provided by Iranian officials.

Iran has long sought recognition of, and help for, its struggle with drug traffickers along its long border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, which kills scores of troops and border police.

However, Iran's Hague summit overture should not be perceived as a policy sea change. According to Reuters, the Islamic Republic supports the drug fight but remains adamantly critical of the United States and NATO's large troop presence in the region. According to Al Jazeera English, Akhoundzade told Iran's official news service Irna that: "The presence of foreign troops cannot bring peace and stability for Afghanistan."

Nevertheless, Iran's offer to at least assist in some way appears to exceed the expectations of some US officials shaping policy in the region. One example is National Security Adviser James Jones, who appeared on NPR's Morning Edition with Steve Inskeep this morning. Jones told Inskeep that the US does not expect anything from the Iranians, only that they not "make trouble." From the interview transcript:

INSKEEP: I'm trying to understand that a little better. I mean, if you go to a particular European country, you could ask them for troops. They might or might not agree. You could ask them for any number of civilian kinds of assistance. What's something specific you could ask Iran for?

JONES: Well, we're not planning on asking Iran for anything. We're certainly not thinking about troops from Iran or anything like that.

INSKEEP: Of course not, of course not. But I'm trying to get a sense of a concrete way that they could be helpful.

JONES: I think this is very embryonic, and we'll just have to wait and see what's possible.

INSKEEP: Do you need Iran's help to solve the problem of Afghanistan?

JONES: We need regional stability and to the extent that all countries can participate in stability in the form of economic stability, political stability, that's helpful. We'll just have to wait and see exactly what they decide to do or not do. I want to be very clear that we're not asking Iran to do anything in particular in Afghanistan except not to make trouble.

Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated before the Hague summit that she had few expectations of Iran, but that, given its shared border with Afghanistan and increasing role as a regional power, it should be present at any regional talks. From Al Jazeera English:

Before the conference, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, welcomed Iran's participation, but said she had "no plans" to seek out Iranian diplomats.

"The fact that they accepted the invitation to come suggests that they believe there is a role for them to play, and we're looking forward to hearing more about that," she said.

In the most recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report [PDF] from 2008, which dealt with drug addiction and trafficking statistics for 2006 and 2007, Iran topped the list for opium seizures -- with 81 percent of the global total -- and heroin seizures -- with 19 percent. Iran has long been plagued by widespread drug addiction, due to its high unemployment, proximity to Afghani poppy fields and key placement as the first stop on a "heroine highway", of sorts, that leads to European drug markets -- all of which explains its calculated response to assist the new administration with its new Afghan strategy.

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