Iran and NATO hold first talks in 30 years

An Iranian diplomat and a senior NATO official met in Brussels for the first talks between the two sides since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago. The two parties are said to be considering possible co-operation over Afghanistan.


AFP - Iran and NATO have held their first talks since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago, officials at the military alliance said Thursday, in a new sign of a thaw in Tehran's ties with the West.

At allied headquarters in Brussels last week, an Iranian diplomat and a senior NATO official had an "informal contact" focused on Iran's neighbour Afghanistan, where the alliance is battling a stiff Taliban-led insurgency.

"The diplomat met with Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy Martin Erdmann," chief NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

"It was a first informal contact about the subject of Afghanistan," he said, adding: "We have not yet programmed a second meeting."

A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the talks, said the visit by the diplomat, who was not identified, was the first "since the regime of the Shah" of Iran, which collapsed in 1979.

He noted that "the Iranians are interested in possible cooperation on Afghanistan" to better confront the problems posed by opium production there and an influx of Afghan refugees across their border.

A second NATO official said: "There were exploratory contacts recently. Nothing of substance was discussed. It was a first informal contact between an Iranian diplomat and a representative of the secretary general."

Earlier Thursday, Iran confirmed that it would attend a major international meeting on Afghanistan in The Hague in the Netherlands next week.

The meeting on Tuesday comes as the United States undertakes a vast review of its strategy in Afghanistan, to be made public Friday, and amid new efforts by Washington to reach out to Tehran.

The review puts all of Afghanistan's neighbours, notably Pakistan, at the heart of a solution to choke off the Taliban-led insurgency, which has dented NATO's efforts to spread democracy and foster reconstruction.

"The fact that Iran has accepted to go to the conference in The Hague is good news and constitutes a new step in the regionalisation of the Afghan issue," Appathurai said.

Iran has close ethnic and religious ties with Afghanistan, but the Islamic republic has suffered badly from the effects of surging opium production, with cheap and readily available heroin fuelling a sharp rise in drug use.

A spokesman at the Iranian embassy in Brussels declined to comment immediately on the visit last week.

In a video message to Iranian leaders marking the Persian New Year, US President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" in ties between Washington and Tehran.

They have had no diplomatic relations since the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Yet both share an interest in restoring stability to Afghanistan, where a US-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001 for harbouring Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Obama has given the conflict top foreign policy priority since coming to power, above the war in Iraq which divided NATO allies.

While Washington welcomed Iran's participation in next week's conference, a spokesman said neither Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor any other senior US official would hold bilateral talks with the Iranians in The Hague.

State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Iran's decision to attend was "a welcome move, because we do want this conference to be a regional conference. A regional conference would be incomplete without Iran."

But US interactions with the Iranians in The Hague would be limited to the multilateral conference setting, he said.

"The Iranians will be around the table. They will speak; we will listen to them. We will hear their points of view, and they will also hear our points of view in a discussion about Afghanistan," he said.

The Hague conference is officially being co-hosted by Afghanistan, the United Nations and the Dutch government. It will be opened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

About 80 countries and 20 organisations and observers have been invited.

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