THE HAGUE — A senior U.S. official met with an Iranian diplomat during an international conference here Tuesday, marking the Obama administration's biggest overture so far to the Islamic Republic.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had a "brief but cordial" meeting with the official, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the delegation.
The encounter with the deputy foreign minister, during a conference on Afghanistan, was the administration's first face-to-face meeting with Iranian officials and represents an early move in President Obama's effort to reestablish dialogue after 30 years of hostility.
Clinton told reporters that Iran's participation at the meeting marked "a promising sign that there will be future cooperation" between Iran and other world powers on how to deal with the deepening problems in Afghanistan.
Tehran has expressed ambivalence about the overtures, and had kept U.S. officials guessing as to whether it would attend the conference, which brought together 83 countries.
Afterward, the deputy foreign minister, Mahdi Akhundzadeh, denied that any negotiations with U.S. officials had taken place. "It is neither on our agenda nor have we any plans to negotiate with the Americans," he was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying.
Nonetheless, the private meeting appeared to suggest that Tehran at least wants to continue exploring what Washington has to offer.
Holbrooke and Akhundzadeh "agreed to keep in touch," Clinton said. She also passed along an unsigned diplomatic letter to Akhundzadeh asking Tehran to do what it could to bring about the return of three Americans from Iran. The three are private investigator Robert Levinson, freelance journalist Roxana Saberi and student Esha Momeni.
Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared in March 2007 during a trip to Iran, where he was investigating a smuggling case. Saberi, who worked in television and radio, was arrested Jan. 31 and charged with working without a permit. Momeni, a graduate student at Cal State Northridge, was arrested in October while researching the Iranian women's rights movement.
The letter asks Iran "to use all its facilities to determine the whereabouts and ensure the quick and safe return of Robert Levinson, and grant the release of Roxana Saberi, and permission to travel for Roxana Saberi and Esha Momeni."
The U.S. letter appeared intended in part to counter concerns that the administration might go too far to placate Iran. U.S. lawmakers, Israelis and officials with Persian Gulf countries are among those who have expressed concern.
The Afghanistan conference produced declarations of support for the international mission there, but also acknowledgments of the difficulty of the task.
Kai Eide, the top United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, warned that world powers shouldn't be overcome by a "doom-and-gloom atmosphere."
In public comments at the conference, the Iranian diplomat objected to U.S. plans to send an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan.
"The presence of foreign forces has not improved things in the country, and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective too," Akhundzadeh said.
At the same time, he said Iran was concerned about a vast flow of Afghan narcotics. Iran "has always been suffering from instability and insecurity in Afghanistan," he said.
A senior State Department official, who declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the closed discussions, said that although Iran expressed some grievances with the U.S., its tone was warmer than it has been in the past.
The high-visibility encounter also appeared to be another sign of the ambitions of Holbrooke, a veteran diplomat who was Clinton's chief foreign policy advisor during her presidential campaign and who appears to be widening the scope of his diplomatic activities.
Several other administration officials have duties related to Iran, including William Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official, and Dennis Ross, a senior advisor.