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Iran: Tehran Invited To Join EU, U.S. At Iraqi Reconstruction Meeting

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran might join officials from the United States, European Union, and Iraq at a meeting later in June on Iraqi reconstruction. Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU Presidency, said yesterday that Tehran has been formally invited to attend the 22 June meeting in Brussels. Despite long-standing enmity between Washington and Tehran, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States has no objection to Iran participating in the meeting.

Prague, 3 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is not yet clear whether Iranian officials will be in Brussels on 22 June.

Tehran has participated in past meetings on the future of Iraq, including the 2003 donors conference in Madrid.

Washington has no official ties with Tehran. But yesterday evening, at a joint press conference with Rice, Asselborn made it clear the EU was extending an invitation to Iran.

"Luxembourg has the presidency," Asselborn said. "Luxembourg has relations with Iran. Iran [is] invited."

Rice said that, despite the absence of relations between Iran and the United States, Washington has no objection to the invitation. She said the United States wants Iraq and Iran to enjoy good and transparent neighborly relations.

"Iran is Iraq's neighbor," Rice said. "We would like nothing better than for Iran to be devoted to a stable Iraq, in which Iran is not trying to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs but rather trying to support the development of a stable and democratic Iraq."

Iran has been accused of backing factions of Iraq's Shi'ite majority and also of allowing militants to cross its border into Iraq. Tehran has repeatedly denied meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Looking to Iran's 17 June presidential election, Rice expressed doubt the vote would be free and fair, and pointed to the disqualification of some 1,000 candidates by Iran's powerful constitutional watchdog.

"It's [not] a very pretty picture of this 'election,' quote-unquote, that is going to take place in a couple of weeks, when candidates have been summarily dismissed by an unelected Guardians Council," Rice said.

Rice's comments were rejected by Iran’s Foreign Ministry as interference in the country's internal affairs.

Iran’s student news agency ISNA today quoted ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi as saying Rice was angry over what he called the "success" of a trip in May to Iraq by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Kharazi's trip, which came on the heels of Rice's own trip to the country, was praised by Iraqi officials as a new start in bilateral relations. The two countries issued a joint statement blaming deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as being the aggressor in the bloody Iran-Iraq War.

ISNA quoted Assefi as saying: "Without a doubt, Iran is not moving in line with U.S.-imposed developments in the region. Iran believes that people in the region have enough political maturity to determine their own future."

So is the invitation to Brussels a quiet attempt by Washington at mending fences?

Hassan Fathi, a journalist based in Tehran, said the invitation showed that the United States recognizes Iran's influence in Iraq.

“Iran also attended conferences on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and there, also, the U.S. recognized Iran as an acceptable player in the region," Fathi said. "Regarding Iraq, Kharrazi's recent trip to Baghdad, where both sides reached an agreement, showed that Iran and Iraq are willing to solve differences and problems peacefully. The invitation to Iran and the tacit U.S. approval of Iran's participation in the meeting is because Iran's influence among Shi'a in Iraq. And the U.S. does not want this influence to be used against its own interests or the interests of the Iraqi government."

Davood Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law in Tehran, said he agreed that the United States acknowledged Iran’s importance in forming the future of Iraq. He added that bringing Tehran and Washington together at the reconstruction meeting could help ease tensions between the two countries.

“Without a doubt, it will have some effect," Bavand said. "These initial understandings can lay the groundwork for talks on more general issues. Participation in such conferences and meetings, in general talks and dialogues, prepare the ground for more understanding, but at the current moment the U.S. is more willing to have a tactical agreement, with Iran, not a strategic one."

Fathi, however, said that the animosity between Tehran and Washington had deep roots, and could not be solved through even a point of common interest like Iraq.

The United States has called on Iran to abandon its nuclear program, which Washington suspects is being used with the aim of producing weapons of mass destruction.

Iranian officials deny the claim and say the United States should drop its “hostile “policies toward Iran.

Washington and Tehran severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and U.S. hostage crisis. Tensions heightened further in 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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