U.S. Asks Iran for Return of Three Americans

By Glenn Kessler

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009; 1:33 PM

THE HAGUE, March 31 -- At an international conference Tuesday, the United States made an unusual direct appeal to Iran for the safe return of three Americans.

Richard C. Holbrooke, a senior U.S. diplomat, also had an unplanned meeting with an Iranian official at the same meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters. "It did not focus on anything substantive," she said. "It was cordial, it was unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch."

The outreach to Iran built on President Obama's televised greeting last month in honor of the Persian New Year. It came in the form of an unsigned document known as an aide-memoire, which was delivered directly to the Iranian delegation. Normally, communications between the two countries are handled through the Swiss government because the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since the Iranian revolution three decades ago.

"In the letter, we asked Iran to use all its facilities to determine the whereabouts and ensure the quick and safe return of Robert Levinson. We also asked that Iran grant the release of Roxana Saberi, and [give] permission to travel for both Roxana Saberi and Esha Momeni," Clinton said. "These acts would certainly constitute a humanitarian gesture by the Islamic Republic of Iran in keeping with the spirit of renewal and generosity that marks the Persian new year."

Levinson is a former FBI agent who disappeared two years ago while visiting Iran's Kish Island; Roxana Saberi is an Iranian American freelance journalist who has been detained without charge since January; and Esha Momeni is an Iranian American graduate student and women's rights advocate who was arrested in Iran last year and has since been barred from leaving.

Iran's remarks will be closely scrutinized by U.S. officials, who hope that the potential for cooperation on Afghanistan between Iran and the United States will begin to ease some of the long-standing tensions between the two countries. Clinton pushed for the creation of the conference and for Iran's inclusion.

The conference, attended by more than 80 countries and international organizations, offered the opportunity for a rare diplomatic encounter between the United States and Iran. But, though Clinton and Akhundzadeh were seated at the same horseshoe-shaped table, their paths did not cross.

In her address to the conference, Clinton said Taliban members in Afghanistan who abandoned extremism must be granted an "honorable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society."

"We must also support efforts by the government of Afghanistan to separate the extremists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from those who have joined their ranks not out of conviction, but out of desperation," Clinton said. "This is, in fact, the case for a majority of those fighting with the Taliban."

But Clinton was also critical of the Afghan government's tolerance of corruption. "We must demand accountability from ourselves and the Afghan government," she said. "Corruption is a cancer -- as dangerous to our long-term success as the Taliban or al-Qaeda. A government that cannot deliver for its people is a terrorist's best recruiting tool."

Clinton lavished praise on the Dutch hosts of the meeting, pointing to Holland's approach to its operations in the difficult southern Afghanistan province of Uruzgan. The Dutch policy of defense, diplomacy and development "is exactly the right framework," she said.