United States to Meet Iran in U.N.-Sponsored Talks on Afghanistan

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In a rare event, Secretary of State Colin Powell will meet face-to-face with his Iranian counterpart Nov. 12 during an eight-nation meeting on the future of Afghanistan.

A State Department source said the "Six Plus Two" meeting will occur when the United Nations holds its General Assembly in New York.

"Six Plus Two," a group of nations organized by the United Nations, consists of the United States and Russia as well as the six countries that neighbor Afghanistan: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The group was organized in 1999 by Secretary General Kofi Annan to explore cooperation among the eight nations as they look for a peaceful future for Afghanistan.  In the past, the "Six Plus Two" have sought ways to stem the illicit opium trade fueled by the Taliban regime and to bring warring factions to peace talks.

U.N. Special Envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi is also expected to attend the session to discuss the results of a fact-finding tour he is conducting through the region, the source said.

The upcoming meeting creates the unusual situation of having American and Iranian diplomats at the same table, a rarity since the U.S. broke diplomatic ties following the Iranian revolution that saw 52 U.S. hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

Last year, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was present at a "Six Plus Two" meeting as was the Iranian representative with whom Albright had no direct contact.

The situation now, though, is much more urgent as the United States strikes Afghanistan in an effort to unseat the Taliban regime, which has given safe harbor to Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.  Al Qaeda is blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 5,000 people, brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

Iran has condemned the attacks and said that it supports replacing the Taliban. Iran, Shi'ite Muslims, are sworn enemies of the Taliban, a Sunni Muslim sect of Islam.

But Iran's foreign minister said U.S. attacks on Afghanistan will hurt the anti-terror cause. Iran has called for a U.N.-led coalition to fight international terrorism.

Iran also complains that it is left alone to assist the 2.35 million Afghan refugees sitting along its border.

Afghanistan's neighbors have offered varying degrees of support to the United States-led coalition against terror.  Pakistan and Uzbekistan have offered considerable assistance, allowing U.S. troops to use bases in their countries to serve as command and control centers.  The other neighboring nations have condemned the Sept. 11 attack.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is traveling this weekend to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia as well as India to fortify U.S. support for military action in Afghanistan.