High-level meeting planned between U.S., Iran officials

Talks on Afghan future to involve Powell and Iranian foreign minister

War On Terrorism

The World

October 30, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the latest sign of a thaw in long-frozen ties between the United States and Iran, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Iran's foreign minister plan to meet in New York next month on the future of Afghanistan, officials said yesterday.

Powell and Kamal Kharrazi plan to join top officials from Russia, China and other countries that border Afghanistan in an effort to encourage the formation of a new regime to replace the Taliban.

Although Powell's predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright, participated in similar meetings, this year's New York session assumes much greater significance, nearly a month into a U.S.-led war to topple the Taliban and break up Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

A Western diplomat at the United Nations said the meeting could contribute to U.S.-Iranian relations, which have shown little improvement in the two decades since Iranian militants seized U.S. diplomats as hostages in 1979 and held most for 444 days.

Iran's moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, is expected to be in New York at the same time for the United Nations General Assembly session. However, officials said he is unlikely to join any meetings with American officials.

Iran, which has a 560-mile border with Afghanistan, shares U.S. hostility toward the Taliban. Like the United States, Iran says it wants to see a broad-based government there that represents all the country's ethnic groups.

"If Iran is able to show it wants to play a stabilizing role and not just push its own agenda, that obviously would have a positive impact on how it is perceived by the rest of the world," said the Western diplomat. "If trust is developed, it could be a foothold to tackle other areas where [America and Iran] don't have shared views."

The two countries face steep hurdles in improving ties. Iran tops the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism. It backs violent opponents of the Israeli-Arab peace process and has alarmed the United States, Persian Gulf states and Israel with its drive to acquire nuclear weapons and achieve dominance in the region.

A top aide to Powell said the secretary viewed as "a plus" Iran's offer several weeks ago to rescue any U.S. servicemen who might land in Iran in distress as a result of U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan.

"We'll have to see [what happens] over the long term," the aide said. "You have to hope we'll get the same degree of cooperation and commitment we experience early in the campaign."

The meeting will occur on the fringes of the weeklong meeting of world leaders at the General Assembly, which President Bush will address Nov. 10. The exact date and format of the meeting aren't yet certain.

A centerpiece of the meeting would be whatever results have been achieved by Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, who is now in the region in a bid to help stitch together a post-Taliban regime.

Brahimi was in Pakistan yesterday, meeting with Pakistani officials and Afghan exiles, and he plans to visit Iran.

Officials from various countries are considering setting up a temporary U.N. administration of the country if the military campaign succeeds in toppling the Taliban, plus some kind of peacekeeping force to prevent a new outbreak of civil war.

The New York meeting offers the latest of several opportunities for American and Iranian officials to share views more freely than in the past. Two recent meetings were held in Europe, both involving mid-level diplomats, to discuss humanitarian relief for Afghan refugees and that nation's future.

In addition, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations met over dinner on Capitol Hill two weeks ago with several members of Congress, including Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

In Iran Sunday, a member of a special parliamentary committee on the Afghan crisis, Gholamheidar Ebrahimbai-Salami, said the group had concluded that Iran needed direct contacts with Washington and the two countries should cooperate over the future of Afghanistan.

But in an indication of the deep divisions that still exist in Iran, other members of the panel distanced themselves yesterday from his remarks.

And the leader of Iran's hard-line judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, threatened to punish reformers who speak favorably about the United States, saying, "Our national interests lie with antagonizing the Great Satan. We condemn any cowardly stance toward America and any word on compromise with the Great Satan."

As for next month's meeting, Shireen Hunter, a specialist on Iran at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "I don't think one should get overexcited."

But she said the meeting offers a chance for an informal exchange between Powell and Kharrazi: Even "the smallest exchange of civilities cannot but be positive."

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