CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Iran and America must put aside their serious differences for now to work on a mutual goal: stamping out the threat of Osama bin Laden's Taliban-harbored terrorist networks centered in Afghanistan.
Iran's concerns with the Taliban are deep-rooted, and exceed those of any other regional power. Iran already hosts 1-1/2 million unwanted Afghan refugees, and has now closed its 580-mile border with Afghanistan. It nearly went to war with Afghanistan in 1998 in response to the Taliban soldiers' murder of 10 Iranian diplomats and a journalist. It has supported the Northern Alliance's struggle against the Taliban forces.
Iran has lost some 3,000 troops in its war against Afghan drug smugglers. And the Taliban regime has severed the flow of the Hirmand River, in violation of an old Afghan-Iran agreement, turning Iran's largest fresh-water body of water, Lake Hamoun, into a desert.
Iran's sympathetic response to the American tragedy has been exceptional for a country under US economic siege for two decades. Only hours after the Sept. 11 attack, President Muhammad Khatami condemned it, as did Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other officials have sent sympathetic messages, including one from the mayor of Tehran to the mayor of New York - the first public official contact between Iran and the US since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran has also sent a message through Canada that it will not oppose US military retaliation.
More important, 60,000 spectators observed a minute of silence during a soccer match in Iran's Azadi Stadium, and hundreds of young Iranians held a candle-lit vigil in Tehran.
Given the unprecedented convergence of American-Iranian interests in the fight against bin Laden-led terrorism, Tehran and Washington must find a creative way to work together. Richard Haass, State Department director of policy planning, has floated the idea of a role for Iran in creating a US-led coalition, but has not indicated how to make room for such a role.
I suggest three options: First, the administration may wish to explore how to link a US-led NATO coalition with an anti-Taliban coalition including China, Russia, Iran, and India. This grouping was formed long before Sept. 11. All its members share deep concerns over the threat of Taliban support for exporting Islamic extremism. China regards "Islamic terrorism" as a threat not only to the vast northwest region of Xinjian, but also to China's "national unity." Russia blames its conflict in Chechnya on Islamic terrorism, and also fears the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to Central Asia.
India's hostility toward Pakistan's pampering of the Taliban regime intertwines with the festering dispute over Kashmir, as well as India and Pakistan's longstanding hostility. And Iran's concerns with the Taliban regime mentioned above were reflected - during talks in April with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee - in Ayatollah Khamenei's call for greater cooperation among the coalition members. After the attacks on America, senior coalition diplomats met in Tajikistan on Sept. 13.
A second option may be to intensify cooperation with Iran within the existing United Nations "6 + 2 Group" of nations concerned with Afghanistan, of which Iran and the US are active members. For example, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi participated in a meeting of this group on Sept. 15, 2000, in which both Iran and the US were represented. Ms. Albright stated at the meeting that she was encouraged by the similarity of views between Washington and Tehran over the problems of Afghanistan, including human rights, terrorism, and narco-trafficking.
Finally, the best option may be for the US to fully support Britain's unprecedented discussion with Iran. Prime Minister Tony Blair revealed that he had a "remarkable conversation" with President Khatami on Sept. 20. Mr. Blair sent Foreign Minister Jack Straw to Tehran in a groundbreaking visit as part of efforts to bring Iran into an international coalition against terrorism, the first visit by a British foreign minister to Iran since the 1979 revolution.
America recognizes that the antiterrorist campaign will be protracted, and that President Bush will need to lead a coalition even greater than his father's against Iraq a decade ago. Considering that bin Laden terrorist networks spread throughout the Middle East, and that no other state in the region is as strategically prominent as Iran, the country's intelligence and logistical prowess is indispensable.
During the Gulf War, then-Secretary of State James Baker III praised Iran's observance of UN resolutions and recognized Iran's importance in any postwar security arrangements.
Today, the importance of that role is tenfold, and the need for Iran's cooperation, at least regarding exchange of information and border collaborations, is that much greater. In fact, Iran has already ruled out Mr. bin Laden's entry onto its soil if he leaves Afghanistan. Given the well-known US-Iran differences, neither country should couple its broader concerns with the immediate task of preparing for military action against the Taliban regime.
Conceivably, even indirect US-Iran cooperation at this extraordinary strategic moment could ease the current impasse in their relations, and may well lead, in the long run, to the necessary government-to-government talks between them.
R.K. Ramazani is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, and co-editor (with John L. Esposito) of 'Iran at the Crossroads," (Palgrave, 2001).