A small group of US congressmen attended an informal dinner in Washington on October 17 with a top Iranian diplomat in an attempt to promote cooperation and speed the normalization of relations between the United States and Iran.
A source with knowledge of the meeting characterized the discussion as "a very useful exploration of areas of common interest." Nejad Hosseinian, Iran's UN Representative, voiced "an expression of regret" on behalf of the Iranian people for the human suffering connected with the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Meanwhile, the bipartisan congressional group, led by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio), recognized recent Iranian moves designed to promote goodwill.
Participants expressed a desire to continue informal contacts, although no specific time was designated for a follow-up meeting. The ultimate aim of this initiative is to promote the normalization of relations between Iran and the United States. However, before that can happen, the source said, the two countries must overcome obstacles created by decades of rancorous relations. While hopeful that the initiative could achieve its aim, the source stressed that contacts are now at a "very delicate stage."
"The first steps have to be human steps," the source said. The congressional participants had long been interested in promoting improved relations, but the September 11 events helped accelerate the initiative because it "underlined common humanity," the source said.
Calls to the Iranian Mission to the United Nations seeking comment were not returned. In recent days, Iran has sent positive signals on possible cooperation with the United States in the conduct of the anti-terrorism campaign.
Immediately following the September 11 attacks, Iran's religious leadership indicated the country would not participate in the international coalition against terrorism. But soon after the start of US bombing raids in Afghanistan on October 8, Iran pledged to assist in search and rescue operations, in the event that a downed American pilot landed on Iranian soil, the New York Times reported. Other media sources report that Iranian government officials are now interested in participation in anti-terrorism efforts.
The source told EurasiaNet that Iran is especially concerned about a new influx of Afghan refugees. Already, Iran is home to about 1.5 million Afghan refugees, who have sought relief from two decades of constant warfare in their homeland. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that the anti-terrorism effort could create up to 1.5 million additional refugees, many of whom would be expected to flee to Iran and Pakistan.
In addition, Teheran wants the United Nations to play a larger role in the anti-terrorism campaign. Iranian officials are concerned that their security interests are not being "taken fully into account" under the current US framework for the anti-terrorism campaign, the source said.
The informal discussion between Hosseinian and the congressional group represented a personal initiative of the participants, and did not occur under the auspices of official government contact. Nevertheless, the initiative enjoyed the support of the Bush Administration. "The Bush Administration, like the Clinton Administration before it, has encouraged a full range of contacts and seeks ways to normalize relations," the source said.
Justin Burke is the editor of EurasiaNet.