Well, contact has been made.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported this week that senior American diplomat Richard Holbrooke met with Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Mehdi Akhundzadeh at a conference on the future of Afghanistan at the Hague.  The meeting was brief and unofficial.  Clinton said, “It did not focus on anything substantive. It was cordial, it was unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch.”  Clinton also noted that American officials delivered a letter to Iranian officials, asking for help in locating three Americans who have been arrested or gone missing in Iran.

There has been much discussion and analysis of how America and Iran can work together to establish and achieve common interests in Afghanistan.  Less has been said about the letter and possible cooperation in the matter of Robert Levinson, Esha Momeni, and Roxana Saberi.

Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran two years ago while he was investigating the suspected smuggling of cigarettes for a private investigative firm.  In September 2007 Iran rejected an American request to allow Swiss diplomats to travel to the island where Levinson was last seen in order to investigate and in January 2009 U.S. Senator Bill Nelson stated his belief that Levinson was being held in a secret Iranian prison.

Esha Momeni is a graduate student at California State University who was arrested in Iran on October 15th, 2008.  Pulled over for a traffic violation, Momeni’s research materials that she had collected for her thesis on the womens’ rights movement in Iran were confiscated.  She was imprisoned, subjected to solitary confinement, and interrogated before being released in in November.  However, she remains unable to leave Iran, since the government has refused to return her passport.

Roxana Saberi is an American-Iranian journalist who was arrested on January 31st, 2009 in Tehran.  After months of keeping her in prison, Iran’s judiciary finally charged her yesterday of continuing to work in Iran after her journalist credentials had expired.

The arrest and detainment of these three American citizens (if Levinson is in fact being detained) could pose a serious sticking point for the barely nascent relationship between the U.S. and Iran.  Considering that Iran has denied both that the meeting between Holbrook and Akhundzadeh occurred and the existence of the letter about Levinson, Momeni, and Saberi, we will have to wait to see the full extent of Iranian officials’ reactions.  As I have said earlier, if Iran wants to be treated as an actor in the  international system, then it is about time that it pays action to the rules of international diplomacy: including the respect for the citizens of other states.

The New York Times points out today in an editorial that Iran could be dragging its feet to pursue a relationship with the U.S. in order to win precious time for the development of its nuclear program.  The Times suggests that the Obama administration force Iran’s hand by making a major offer, such as a special interests section or a visit by Secretary Clinton, compelling Iranian officials to agree to increased interaction or to publicly refuse a generous offer.  I hope that this major offer will include discussions of the cases of Levinson, Momeni, and Saberi- it would be an important humanitarian concession on the behalf of Iran.