Moni Basu in Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WAR ON TERRORISM: IRAN: Internal splits thwart U.S. thaw

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By Moni Basu

An exchange between the United States and Iran over Iran’s role in Afghanistan has revived a bitter war of words that was put on hold after the Sept. 11 attacks.  It has also exposed a clash of opinions within the two countries on how to deal with each other.

On Thursday, the Bush administration accused Iran of harboring members of the al-Qaida terrorist network and attempting to undermine the pro-Western interim government in Afghanistan.  “Iran must be a contributor in the war against terror. Our nation . . . will uphold the doctrine of either you’re with us or against us,” President Bush warned. He spoke following reports of al-Qaida terrorists crossing into Iran and U.S. intelligence concerns that Iran might be shipping arms to its allies among Afghan factions.

On Friday, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s powerful former president and long-standing U.S. critic, retaliated by calling Bush “rude and impudent.”  “How does [Bush] dare speak to our nation in such a manner?” he said, objecting to the United States laying demands on Iran.  Other Iranian government officials said that “there is no ground for al-Qaida fighters and their supporters to seek shelter in Iran.”

On the surface, Iran’s past relationship with neighboring Afghanistan makes the U.S. charges seem implausible, though they may be true, said experts on the region.  A Shiite Muslim nation, Iran has long opposed the hard-line Sunni Islam promoted by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. In 1998, Iranian troops massed on the Afghan border after the Taliban killed eight Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif.  “I find it extraordinary that the Iranian clergy would have any links at all to al-Qaida,” said Jamal Hasan, a free-lance writer in Washington who has observed Iran for many years. He said the U.S. accusations could be a way to further isolate Iran as a terrorist state. The Bush government recently blamed Tehran’s Islamic regime and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah for having a hand in shipment of arms apparently headed to Palestinian extremists but seized by Israel.  “Whatever Iran did in the Palestinian territories is despicable,” Hasan said, “so perhaps Bush is making trouble for the Iranians on the Afghan front.” The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized during Iran’s 1979 revolution. But in recent months, analysts viewed several incidents as potential steps to warming relations.  Reformist President Mohammed Khatami condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, and Iran quietly supported the U.S.-led effort to topple the Taliban. “It was a dramatic departure for Iran to support the Afghan campaign,” Hasan said.

In November, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated publicly that Washington wanted to “explore opportunities” with Tehran. The remarks came even though Iran remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist countries and despite the fact that more conservative members of the Bush administration want America’s relationship with Iran to remain in a deep freeze.  Divisive opinions on U.S.-Iran relations are more apparent in Tehran, where the reformist movement, led by Khatami, has been trying for years to open up Iranian society and has placed itself at odds with the conservative clergy.

By all accounts, the Iranians seem satisfied that Afghanistan’s Shiite minority has been granted fair representation in Kabul’s new government. Iranian aid and promises of reconstruction have poured across the 600-mile border.  Peace and stability in Afghanistan pave the way for a number of projects the Iranians have been promoting for years, including a gas pipeline to India, Hasan said. Iran would also like to see the return of 1.5 million Afghan refugees to their homeland. In that sense, a quieter Afghanistan serves Iran’s best interests.  But, for the first time, the Islamic regime in Tehran — which came to power in 1979, the same year Soviets marched into Afghanistan — will have to deal with the discomfort of having a pro-American government next door.

“In his heart of hearts, I am sure Khatami is cheering that, although he would never admit it,” said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “But [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei doesn’t feel positively about it. That’s the dichotomy of Iran. We have to deal with a split country here.” And ultimately, it is Khamenei, the country’s religious leader, and his religious hard-liners who still wield ultimate power. They probably find it more palatable to embrace America’s worst enemy than to hold hands with America, Gouttierre said. The clerics see the choice as one of befriending Islamists (Sunni or Shiite) or the enemy of those Islamists.  “The clerics realize that their own future is predicated on keeping alive the external specter of the United States,” Gouttierre said. “That’s the only thing they really have to justify their presence anymore. . . . They are capable of doing extreme things, and even though al-Qaida would not be pro-Shiite, they might at least share a common enemy”.  
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The essay originally published in  Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 12, 2002. The text used to be accessed at the following link:
http://www.accessatlanta.com/ajc/epaper/editions/saturday/news_c3f35d…
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