Friday, April 03, 2009

Bilateral Relations: US-Iran, the meeting you have when you're not having a meeting

As expected, all eyes were on Iran and the United States as diplomats from the two rivals sat at the same table during a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on March 31.

There were rumors throughout the day about an anticipated meeting between Richard Holbrooke and the head of Iran's delegation, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh. Finally, toward the end of the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that such a meeting had in fact taken place.

"In the course of the conference today, our special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had a brief and cordial exchange with the head of the Iranian delegation," Clinton told reporters. "It did not focus on anything substantive. It was cordial, it was unplanned, and they agreed to stay in touch."

Iran's account was slightly different. A day after the conference, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qhasghavi told the semi-official Mehr news agency: “There was no official or unofficial meeting or conversation between the representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and America on the sidelines of the conference, and the news about this has been dismissed.”

Akhundzadeh also denied a U.S.-Iranian meeting had taken place in an interview with Iran’s official news agency (IRNA), which quoted him as saying, “We do not play hide and seek with anyone. Our policies are clear for everyone.”

Iran observers might find some humor in the comments about hide and seek. Last year in Sharm al-Sheik, Egypt, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki skipped a delegates' dinner to avoid any possible encounter with Condoleezza Rice, following their exchange of brief pleasantries earlier that day. And during Bill Clinton's term as U.S. president, then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami narrowly escaped a potential meeting at the UN.

As for the conflicting accounts of the Afghanistan conference, it's possible that Iranian officials define "meeting" differently than their U.S. counterparts. Holbrooke and Akhndzadeh may have sat down to speak together on the sidelines of the conference -- or they may have merely exchanged a few words in passing.

In any case, reports of a "meeting" would contradict Iranian officials' position that they expect concrete steps from Washington -- such as lifting sanctions or recovering frozen assets -- before Tehran will talk to U.S. officials.

The denial could therefore be meant to appease the hardliners and demonstrate that Iran is standing strong, while the United States remains, for now, the "Great Satan."

That is, at least until further notice. As Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said last year, "I would be the first person to announce it the day when ties with the United States would be useful for the Iranian nation."

Golnaz Esfandiari/Mehrdad Mirdamadi
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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