Iran, NATO in first talks in 30 years: NATO officials

An Iranian diplomat and a NATO official have had "informal contact" for the first time in 30 years, holding discussions in Brussels about Afghanistan, NATO officials said Thursday, AFP reported.

"The diplomat met with Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy Martin Erdmann," chief alliance 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 said the visit last week 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.

"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," a second NATO official added.

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

The meeting on Tuesday comes as the United States undertakes a vast review of its policies in Afghanistan, expected to be made public in coming days, 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 stopped 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, President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" in ties. They have had no diplomatic relations since the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

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, above the war in Iraq.

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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