Iran says open to Afghan meeting offer from U.S.
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran said on Saturday it would consider an invitation from its old foe the United States to attend a meeting on Afghanistan and that it was ready to help its neighbor as it battles a growing Taliban insurgency.
The United States said on Thursday that President Barack Obama's government intended to invite Iran to an international conference on Afghanistan planned for this month.
If the United States and its European allies need Iran's help, "they should give us (a request)," Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told a news conference.
"We will review it with the approach that we are ready to offer any help to Afghanistan," Elham said.
The United States is at odds with Iran on a range of issues, including Tehran's nuclear program which Washington says is aimed at building bombs. Iran denies the charge.
Obama, in a major shift in U.S. policy, has said the United States wants to engage Iran. The Afghanistan invitation would be the start of diplomatic approach to the Islamic Republic.
Despite their nuclear row, the two countries share an interest in ensuring a stable Afghanistan, analysts say.
But while Iran and the United States sat at the same table to discuss Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Bush administration made sure the new pro-Western Afghan government kept Tehran at arm's length.
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed the conference, which brings in Afghanistan's other neighbors including Pakistan and others, would take place on March 31.
"It is a way of bringing all the stakeholders and interested parties together," Clinton said in Brussels after meeting NATO foreign ministers. She was in Turkey on Saturday.
Elham stressed that Iran's priority was to help Afghanistan.
"For us Afghanistan is very important. Afghanistan's security is our security. Afghanistan's progress is our progress and Afghanistan's stability is ours," Elham said.
"Our issue is Afghanistan. Our issue is not them (the United States and its Western allies). Our issue is not NATO," he said.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Friday accused Iran of supporting the Taliban insurgency and urged Tehran to join international efforts to bring peace to the country.
The United States and Shi'ite Muslim Iran share a common dislike for the hardline Sunni Taliban but some analysts have said Iran may be providing some support to insurgents to tie down and irritate U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The English-language Iran News daily said no security plan could succeed in Afghanistan without Tehran's involvement.
"Tehran holds valuable intelligence about terrorist groups active in the region and its help should be sought as a contributing factor to Afghan stability," the newspaper said.
The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, in which Iranian students held 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy for 444 days.
(Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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