BRUSSELS — The Obama administration moved closer Thursday to resuming diplomatic contact with Iran as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed an international meeting on Afghanistan that could bring U.S. officials face to face with their longtime adversaries.
Clinton suggested that the United Nations host a meeting on Afghanistan on March 31 that would include "key regional and strategic countries," as well as NATO members and other world powers and international groups.
In a speech to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, she said that if her idea of a "big tent" gathering was accepted by international officials, "it is expected that Iran would be invited as a neighbor of Afghanistan." The Obama administration has been deliberating for weeks on how to make a long-promised diplomatic overture to Iran. White House officials have repeatedly suggested that they are interested in contacts with the government in Tehran over their mutual interest in a more stable Afghanistan.
European officials said U.N. officials are expected to support the idea of the meeting, and some analysts said it would appeal to Iran as well.
"The Iranians will be delighted by this overture, as it is in keeping with their demand to be recognized by the Americans as a regional power," said an analysis by the consulting firm Stratfor. It noted the Iranians have contended that Afghanistan's problems can't be resolved without their help.
The United States has limited its relationship with Tehran since the Islamic Revolution swept away the American-backed monarch Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The two sides have had occasional contact and crossed paths at international meetings, such as a May 30 conference on Iraq in Stockholm, attended by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. The two didn't speak at the meeting.
U.S. officials have proposed that Kai Eide, the U.N. coordinator on Afghanistan, lead the March 31 meeting, and that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon give opening remarks. Officials in the Netherlands said they had been asked to provide facilities for the meeting, although U.S. officials said the location was not yet settled.
The meeting would take place two weeks after the Obama administration expects to complete its new policy on Afghanistan. The timing would allow U.S. officials to seek feedback from other countries before a meeting of leaders of NATO members scheduled for early April.
Clinton first raised the possibility of a meeting with the Iranians on Afghanistan on Wednesday while speaking with reporters on her plane during a weeklong overseas trip. She noted that Iran and Afghanistan share a border and that Tehran was consulted regularly by U.S. officials and allies after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Earlier, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, expressed interest in consulting Iran on the question of Afghan stability.
The increasing likelihood of diplomatic contact comes as U.S. officials have spoken harshly about the Islamic regime. Some analysts said the Obama administration may be trying to calm fears among allies, including Israel and Persian Gulf countries, that a U.S.-Iranian detente could leave them vulnerable.
Although U.S. officials are laying plans for possible talks, there are signs that they are also braced for rejection. A senior official said this week that Clinton, trying to calm the fears of the United Arab Emirates, said in a private meeting that Iran may refuse the planned overture.
Also at the NATO meeting, Clinton called for the release of an Iranian American journalist, Roxana Saberi, who has been held by Iranian authorities for a month, accused of "gathering news illegally." Her journalist's license had lapsed.
"There is only one outcome to this, and that is for her to be released as soon as possible to her family in North Dakota," Clinton said.
Clinton and other NATO foreign ministers agreed to restore the organization's ties with Russia, after relations were suspended in August in response to Moscow's incursion into Georgia.
The decision followed a commitment by the Obama administration to "reset" its relationship with Russia, which Clinton said did not mean that U.S. officials would drop disagreements with Moscow.
"We can and must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest," she said, naming Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea, along with nuclear arms control, as areas where Moscow's help is needed.