Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Iran's offer of help to rebuild Afghanistan heralds new age of diplomacy with the US.

Relations between the US and Iran have been ice cold for the past thirty years with George Bush adding his own particular freeze to the mix seven years ago when he named Iran as part of his infamous "axis of evil".

Obama promised to change all that and sent a video message to Iran offering a new start, which was mocked by right wingers, who seem to see conflict as the only way to ever project ones strength.

Well, it turns out Obama's message has yielded results...

Senior western officials yesterday heralded a new spring in relations with Iran, after the Islamic regime made an historic offer to help US-led efforts in Afghanistan.

For the first time since Barack Obama came to office, US and Iranian officials met at an international conference in The Hague, with diplomats saying a possible turning point may have been reached between the US and the country it labelled part of the axis of evil seven years ago.

Washington's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had an informal meeting with the Iranian delegate, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, later described the exchange as "unplanned but cordial", adding that they had agreed to "stay in touch".

Mark Malloch Brown, Britain's foreign office minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, said Iranian offers of help could mark a new "spring in the relationship" between the west and Iran.

They say the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. If that is true, then the Bush administration had gone insane, continually calling for harsher and harsher sanctions, and expecting that this would produce some softening of Iran's stance towards the US and the subject of uranium enrichment.

Obama has started from a different point. He has not called for Iran to give up all of her rights under the NNPT before any talks can take place and the results reaped are tenuous but undeniably much more promising that anything which was produced by all of Bush's threats and bluster.

"I did think the Iranian intervention this morning was promising. The issue of counter-narcotics is a worry that we share. We will look for ways to co-operate with them on that," Clinton said. "This is a promising sign that there will be future co-operation."

Clinton had pressed for Iranian participation in The Hague conference, stressing the importance of finding a regional solution to the insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and western officials were encouraged that Akhundzadeh, a deputy foreign minister and former charge d'affaires in London, was sent by Tehran.

Akhundzadeh told ministers from more than 70 countries at the meeting: "Welcoming the proposals for joint co-operation 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."

He repeated Tehran's criticism of the Nato role in Afghanistan, but used relatively moderate language, saying: "The presence of foreign forces has not improved things and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective, too."

Akhundzadeh added: "The military expenses need to be redirected to the training of the Afghan police and army and Afghanisation should lead the government building process" - an apparent nod towards the Obama administration's decision to send 4,000 more American military trainers.

Bush's problem was that, like all neo-cons, he was almost obsessed with American power, and felt that this power meant that other nations should do as he said, for no better reason than he had said it. There was an almost adolescent quality to his demands that his will be obeyed. Obama is taking a much more adult view of US/Iranian relations and is trading on the fact that both countries have mutual interests, especially when it comes to one of Iran's neighbours, Afghanistan.

But Lord Malloch Brown, speaking for Britain, highlighted the possibility of a new beginning, even whilst noting that we shouldn't get too carried away.

"These are just tentative beginnings. This might be spring in the relationship. There may well be some winter frosts left to come as well," Lord Malloch Brown, representing Britain at the conference, cautioned afterwards.

However, he said the Iranian role at The Hague could represent a turning point.Since 2002, he said, "Afghan strategy has been fought with one hand tied behind our backs."

"There is a completeness to having them back at the table," he added. "There is a meeting of minds on drugs, development issues and the [August Afghan] elections, though not on foreign troops, on which they made clear their objections."

He predicted that western co-operation with Iran in trying to stop the westward flow of drugs from Afghanistan "could quite possibly be one of the products of better relations.

"I've always felt that is one of the obvious ways of drawing Iran into co-operation with the west."

Looking for areas where we share mutual interests turns out to be more promising than concentrating on areas where there is disagreement. And this, it turns out, looks more promising than demanding that Iran subjugate itself before any talks can take place. Who could have predicted that?

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