Iran's rhetoric masks interests

As Iran rail against US strikes on Afghanistan, its leaders discuss the makeup of a post-Taliban regime.

At first glance, Iran's opposition to the US and British air strikes on Afghanistan seemed a return to the old days of Tehran's fiery revolutionary rhetoric. Yesterday, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for "an immediate end" to the strikes and said they had caused a "human catastrophe."

And on Monday, Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, termed the attacks "unacceptable to Iran."

His comments followed a rhetorical blast from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who accused Washington Monday of "lying" about its true intentions, expanding on comments last week that Iran does not consider the United States "competent and sincere [enough] to lead any global campaign against terrorism."

Read between the lines, however, and a different picture emerges. Iran's official pronouncements were still couched in the language of its Islamic revolution, but analysts searched in vain for the vitriol that once featured prominently. "There's still a bit of a fuss, of course," said a European diplomat in Tehran. "What struck me, though, was how muted the fuss was this time."

It is no surprise that Iranian leaders rejected President Bush's "for or against us" ultimatum - Iran has long seen itself as a role model for nonaligned countries. But contrary to many expectations, Iran has spent the past few weeks pursuing a vigorous diplomatic drive to avert military action in Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Kharrazi has made plain his disappointment that his initiative had failed. "During the past days, from Sept. 11 to today, Iran has employed its utmost diplomatic efforts to prevent [further] casualties," he said Monday. "Our recommendations did not fall on receptive ears."

Iranian leaders fear that the US is using the September attacks as a pretext to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. A glance at the map shows why: American military forces are already stationed in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, while US oil companies are entrenched in Azerbaijan to the north. With US military now deployed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and engaged in combat in Afghanistan, it's no surprise Iranians feel jittery.

Sensing the importance of the Afghan crisis to the country, Iranians have suspended the domestic struggle for political power. For the first time in memory, Iran's leaders are speaking with one voice. "This is the first time since 1979 that the makers of foreign policy in Iran have taken a single position," said Saed Leylaz, a political analyst.

But despite its fears, there has been little sign of public protest on the streets of Tehran or Iran's other cities. It was business as usual for the moneychangers on Ferdowsi Street, where noisy demonstrators are often bused in to protest outside the British and German Embassies.

"Iranians think Osama [bin Laden] is a terrorist and that the Taliban were produced by the United States," said Farideh Dabiri, an Iranian woman sipping tea in Ferdowsi Street cafe. "We believe both projects backfired on the US."

In fact, Iran is keen to make the distinction between what it views as legitimate resistance movements and "real" terrorist groups, which attack civilian targets in enemy countries. It's a distinction Iranian representatives will emphasize as Muslim leaders meet at the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Qatar today. Iran's support for the Shiite fundamentalist group Hizbullah in Lebanon, for instance, emanates from the highest level in Iran. The government has long admitted to supporting the Lebanese fighters, viewing them as a legitimate armed group resisting a foreign occupying force on its own territory.

But behind the public rhetoric Iran's planners are already discussing the makeup of a post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In substance, if not in form, their views match closely with those of the US, which advocates a transitional government led by Afghanistan's deposed king, Zahir Shah, in partnership with the opposition Northern Alliance.

"Iran can support an alliance between the Northern Alliance and Zahir Shah," said Mr. Leylaz. "For us, Zahir Shah is much better than the Taliban."

Iran, which admitted last week that it has directed covert military and logistical support to the embattled Northern Alliance, also backs a transitional government that would give way to what one Foreign Ministry official has described as "a broad-based government set up under UN auspices."

In part, Iran's neutrality is fueled by its intense dislike of the Taliban. Iran's Shia clerics view the hard-line Sunni Taliban as a creation of Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, the ISI, that has elevated the Sunni Pashtoon tribes over Iran's allies, the Shia Hazara tribe.

In addition, Iran has borne the economic cost of hosting some 2.4 million Afghan refugees. The refugees arrived when fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion, but most are too afraid of the Taliban to return home.

Unlike Pakistan, however, which housed its Afghan refugees in dirt-poor camps in border regions, Iran allowed refugees to work, marry, and settle throughout the country. Many are now prosperous, giving them less reason to respond to the Taliban's call to arms.

Moreover, Iran still nurses a grievance over the murder of nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1999 when Taliban forces rolled into the city. And Iran has suffered an upsurge in drug trafficking since gangs based in Afghanistan won virtual carte blanche from Taliban leaders in the late 1990s.

But Iranian officials also have their eye on long-term geopolitics. Iran's senior clerics carry some clout in the Islamic world, particularly among Shiites, who account for a quarter of the world's Muslims - a fact that prompted Britain's foreign minister, Jack Straw, to make the trip to Tehran late last month. Only Iran and Pakistan possess a functioning intelligence network in Afghanistan, dealing Tehran a strong hand in maintaining its line against US pressure.

Analysts are realizing that Iran could emerge from the Afghan crisis with its importance enhanced. "A change of government in Afghanistan could solve Iran's border problem, its refugee problem, and its drug problem," said the European diplomat. "And Iran wouldn't even have to lift a finger."

Furthermore, should Pakistan's military government come under increasing pressure from grassroots pro-Taliban activists, Iran is likely to emerge as a key voice of reason in the region.

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