US, don't turn your back on Iran

By lumping Iran in an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea, President Bush could jeopardize the progress made in stabilizing Afghanistan.

More important, Bush's State of the Union statement could also undermine the democratic movement in Iran. This would contradict the ultimate goal of his antiterrorist campaign - to enhance freedom around the world.

In light of these twin interests, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was on target Feb. 1 when she called Bush's statement a "big mistake." The outcry of dismay from Europe, Russia, China, and beyond was also on the mark, given Iran's track record in helping create stability in Afghanistan.

To be sure, Iran has been charged with building an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, involvement in the shipment of weapons intended for Palestinians, and letting Taliban and Al Qaeda members escape from Afgh-anistan. But none of these US allegations has been supported by the international community. Yet regarding Afghanistan, Iran's efforts to stabilize the country have been acclaimed by international diplomats, including Americans.

Iran's actions include:

• Aiding the Northern Alliance until the Taliban's fall, as Iran had done for six years before the US military campaign.

• Fully supporting creation of the interim government headed by Hamid Karzai.

• Using its longtime influence with the representative of the Northern Alliance at the historic Bonn Conference to persuade the alliance to compromise with other Afghan ethnic groups on the future Afghan government.

• Being the first country to establish an embassy in Kabul and sending its foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, to the inauguration ceremony of the interim government.

• Persuading its friend Burhanuddin Rabbani, whom the UN recognized as Afghan president during the years of Taliban rule, to hand over power smoothly to the interim government.

• Encouraging Ismail Khan, a guest of Iran during the Taliban regime and an important Afghan warlord, to attend the inauguration to show his allegiance to the interim government.

• Helping the reconstruction of Afghanistan, according to the UN Development Program.

Suspicions of Iran's influence-peddling in, and arms-funneling to, western Afghanistan should be put to rest.

To take the influence issue first, it does not make any sense that Iran would seek to undermine the interim government that it helped create.

Furthermore, it should be no surprise that Iran seeks to promote stability in Afghanistan, simply because of Iran's unique strategic position in the region.

No Iranian leader could have asserted Iran's commitment to Afghan stability more authoritatively than the Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

In January, when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei repeated his assurances that it is in Iran's interest to work for Afghan stability.

When asked about Iran's alleged funneling of arms to warlords in western Afghanistan, Mr. Annan declared, "We have no independent information."

Iran's interests revolve around several issues: Iran has long battled Afghan drug trafficking. It has endured the burden of millions of Afghan refugees in the face of its own millions of unemployed. And it has been concerned about the possibility of a permanent US military presence in the region because of the Afghan war, just as former President Bush built up an unprecedented US military presence after the Persian Gulf War.

Even more important to Iran is its own stability, enhanced through development of a pro-democracy movement. Observers who discount this grass-roots movement by overemphasizing the power of conservative factions are looking at Iran through the wrong end of the telescope.

These observers disregard the fact that Iran's democratic movement today strikes deep roots in Iranian political culture. The Iranian struggle for liberal democracy has been crushed by foreign powers twice, first at the turn of the 20th century by the Imperial machinations of Britain and czarist Russia and second by the British-supported, CIA-engineered overthrow of the democratic government of Mohammad Musaddiq in 1953.

Millions of Iranian reformist men and women have begun to wonder whether the United States is poised again to scotch Iran's experiment with transition to liberal democracy.

It is hard to believe the Bush administration would give so little weight to this significant mix of Iran's strategic and democratic interests in the absence of credible evidence of misbehavior in Afghanistan.

It is even harder to fathom how the US could fail to see that Iran's interests parallel those of the United States.

ALL MAY not be lost. The US needs Iran's support, if only to maintain the hard-won coalition in the anti-terror war. Perhaps for this reason some US officials have begun to sound a more conciliatory note toward Iran.

William Burns, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, was quoted by Agence France Presse as saying, "There is nothing ... inevitable about conflict and tension between the people of Iran and the people of the US."

More important, in the same article, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insisted that the United States is still open to dialogue with Iran.

Dialogue among civilizations has been an article of faith in President Mohammad Khatami's administration.

But dismay is now deep in Iran, and the Bush administration should launch a diplomatic rescue mission if the gains made in US-Iranian relations are to be strengthened.

• R.K. Ramazani is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and co-editor (with John L. Esposito) of 'Iran at the Crossroads,' (Palgrave, 2001).

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