US Gains in Ridding Bosnia of Iran's Sway

But firing defense aide won't send Tehran packing

Bosnian Deputy Minister of Defense Hasan Cengic is one of the most powerful men in Bosnia. The US State Department says the Bosnian government must fire him because of his ties to Iran if it wants to receive $100 million worth of military equipment floating in a ship anchored in international waters off Croatia.

But sources here say firing Mr. Cengic will do little to sever Bosnia's ties with Iran, or to reduce Cengic's influence in Bosnia's government.

"It is irrelevant whether Cengic retains his title or not," says Chris Bennett of International Crisis Group, an independent observer organization in Sarajevo. "During the war he had no official title. He didn't need one," Mr. Bennett says. "The Americans shouldn't be dismissing this guy. They should try to bring him on board."

Family and political ties

To understand Cengic's power it's necessary to understand how important family relationships are in Bosnia. The Cengics are not just a powerful family; they have a virtual dynasty.

Cengic's father, Halid Cengic, is in charge of the main logistics center of the Army of Bosnia. Another family member leads the cantonal government of the southeastern city of Gorazde. Another is the charg d'affaires of Army headquarters administration. Three other cousins hold key positions in the Bosnian government.

And Hasan Cengic has another key tie to the Bosnian government. In the 1980s, he served six years in jail with current Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic for being a member of the Young Muslims, who were persecuted by Yugoslavia's communist government.

"Everyone in prison with Izetbegovic has his trust," says Bennett. For example, everyone in the Bosnian government uses the formal form of address vie for Mr. Izetbegovic. But not Cengic. He uses the informal tie.

"Everything here is family, and who you suffered with. Cengic is connected to Izetbegovic and the Bosnian government through both," adds Bennett.

Cengic further endeared himself to the Bosnian government during the war when he persuaded Islamic governments, including Iran, to provide the failing Bosnian Army with weapons, equipment, and soldiers.

Tag-team partners

What [former Bosnian Prime Minister Haris] Silajdzic was to the West, Cengic was to the Orient," wrote Dani, a Sarajevo weekly.

Silajdzic, a schoolmate of Cengic at Sarajevo's Islamic school, convinced US officials of the injustice of the arms embargo, while Cengic recruited Islamic nations to supply weapons as the United States looked the other way.

Now the US is afraid it will be tough to end the relationship between Bosnia and Iran that was allowed to develop during the war. A major American concern is that Bosnia could become a key Iranian ally, giving the Islamic regime in Tehran a toehold in Europe.

So the $400-million US program to arm and train the Bosnian Muslim-Croat military, known as "equip and train," was partly devised to reduce Bosnia's dependence on hard-line Islamic countries like Iran. In fact, Bosnia has used Iran's willingness to provide arms and soldiers to its advantage: It has convinced the US that the threat of Iran's influence is real, and that the US should co-opt Iran's strategic relationship with Bosnia.

The US has little patience for Bosnia's delay in firing Cengic. "If you choose Iran, the US is not willing to move forward [with equip and train]," said James Pardew, the US official in charge of the program. "The US has serious issues, and those issues are absolute." US officials warn that support for the program is eroding in Washington, and if Bosnia doesn't sever ties with Iran, the program could be halted.

And now with the possibility that the US might not unload the 45 tanks, 80 armored personnel carriers, 15 helicopters, 840 light antitank weapons, and 45,000 rifles from the US cargo vessel, Bosnia is likely to blink.

"Bosnia's long-term strategic interest is cooperation with the US and Western Europe," Bosnian Ambassador to the UN Muhammad Sacirbey pledges. "This is of such significance to us, we cannot afford to let anything stand in the way." Mr. Sacirbey says Cengic will be replaced when a new government is appointed in the next few weeks.

Iran's influence exaggerated?

But while Cengic has a clear relationship with Iran and other Islamic countries from his wartime efforts, sources here downplay the influence of Iran in Bosnia and say the relationship is merely one of convenience.

"No one in the Bosnian government really has close ties to Iran," says Bennett. "It's not even the same branch of Islam in Iran and Bosnia."

In the end, it will be long-term US commitment to Bosnia that will lessen Iranian influence, observers say.

"The US wants Bosnia to reduce its relationship on less-formal channels for weapons procurement," Sacirbey says. "Train and equip is the way to achieve that."

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