U.S. lawmakers and experts are welcoming word that the United States intends to invite Iran to an international conference on Afghanistan later this month. At a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed a high-level conference on the Afghan situation. She said representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO countries with troops in the region are expected to attend and that representatives from Iran would also be invited.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs expressed hope that Iran would play a positive role at the international conference on Afghanistan on March 31.
"We hope, if they decide to come, that they will bring constructive solutions and ideas in working with the international community to address the challenges that are involved in Afghanistan," he said.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, was holding a hearing on U.S. strategy toward Iran when he learned that the United States is poised to invite representatives from Iran to the conference.
He interrupted the hearing to welcome the news, saying the topic of Afghanistan is a good way to begin a dialogue with Tehran.
"I think a process is already underway. First of all, it is wise to meet on Afghanistan. And secondly, it is wise to be inclusive," he said.
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoed Kerry's comments. In an interview on MSNBC television, Reed said that including Iran in the conference on Afghanistan would be "prudent".
Analysts have suggested that a dialogue with Iran could begin with Afghanistan, where the United States hopes to curb worsening violence and plans to send an additional 17,000 troops.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier in the week, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that said a stable Afghanistan is in the interest of both Washington and Tehran.
"Iran does not want to see a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is a Sunni fundamentalist cult, which they almost fought a war with less than a decade ago. Iran, like the U.S., wants to see drug trafficking curtailed. And Iran, having received more than two million Afghan refugees during the last few decades, certainly does not want to see continued instability in Afghanistan," he said.
Sadjapour said that working on areas of common interest like Afghanistan could pave the way for talks on more difficult issues, notably Iran's nuclear program.
"Those conversations in and of themselves could have an impact on Iran's nuclear disposition. If the United States is able to set a new tone and context for the relationship in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that in and of itself could change the nuclear calculations of Iran's leadership," he said.
At Thursday's Senate hearing, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski noted that Iran and the United States engaged in dialogue on Afghanistan previously.
"We had a rather constructive relationship, briefly, with the Iranians late in 2001 and in 2002, regarding the Taliban issue in Afghanistan," he said.
Brzezinski, who served in Democratic President Jimmy Carter's administration, testified alongside former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who served in the Republican administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
Both men warned of nuclear proliferation in the region, if Iran succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. "I do not doubt that the Iranian desire to master the enrichment process is partly motivated by dangers Tehran sees in the region. But we need to convince Iran that it would, in fact, be worse off were it to succeed in developing a nuclear weapons capability. I think this is of utmost importance because I think we stand on the cusp of a great flowering of proliferation if Iran develops such a capability," said Scowcroft
Scowcroft and Brzezinski both argued there is no evidence to suggest that Iran would enter into a nuclear war in the region, saying that would be a "suicidal" act.
The Senate hearings on Iran come as the United States is reviewing its policy of isolating Tehran, including whether to open a low-level diplomatic office there, a proposal embraced by the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana.
"I support establishing a modest diplomatic presence in Iran. And such an outpost would facilitate more exchange and outreach with the Iranian people, and improve our ability to interpret what is going on in that country," he said.
The Senate panel held a closed-door session on Wednesday to hear classified testimony about the extent of Iran's nuclear program.