The State Department confirmed Thursday it is sending a senior diplomat to a Moscow conference on Afghanistan next week of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran will also attend the meeting and U.S. officials do not rule out interaction with Iranian officials.
The Shanghai group, made up of Russia, China and four Central Asian states, was founded in 2001 and has been widely viewed as a vehicle aimed at countering U.S. influence in the region.
Thus the invitation for the United States to attend the Moscow gathering next week, among several other non-member countries, is being seen as a conciliatory gesture toward the new U.S. administration.
At a news briefing, State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood said the United States will be represented at the March 27 meeting by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon.
Wood said the United States welcomes the opportunity to join Shanghai group members in a conversation about how to stabilize the Afghan situation.
"The reason why we think it is important to go to this conference is because it is about Afghanistan and how the international community can try to better the situation on the ground, to better coordinate our activities, see what types of things we can do together to make things better for the people of Afghanistan," said Robert Wood. "So we view it as important, even though we are not a member, we are not an observer, we were invited and look forward to attending and hopefully we can get something constructive out of this."
In addition to Russia and China, the Shanghai group includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran has permanent observer status along with India, Pakistan and Mongolia. Afghanistan will attend as part of a contact group with the organization.
In 2005, the United States sought, but was denied observer status in the Shanghai group, which has been critical of U.S. military operations in Central Asia.
The Wall Street Journal, which reported on U.S. plans to take part in the Moscow meeting, said it would set the stage for the first direct encounter between U.S. and Iranian officials under the Obama administration, which says it wants dialogue with Tehran.
Spokesman Wood said there were no plans for a specific meeting but said U.S.-Iranian interaction could nonetheless occur:
"There are no plans for any substantive meetings with Iran," he said. "It is not unusual for U.S. and Iranian officials to cross paths during a multi-lateral meeting. So I am not going to rule anything in, or anything out. It is a conference about Afghanistan and its neighbors. Iran is certainly a neighbor of Afghanistan. And so we will see. But as I said there are no planned substantive meetings with the Iranians."
The Moscow meeting is a prelude to a U.N.-organized international conference on Afghanistan, co-hosted by the Afghan government and the Netherlands, at the Hague March 31. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend that meeting and there is also expected to be high-level Iranian participation.