Tehran has condemned the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the United States and may participate in a U.S.-led multinational campaign against terrorism. But cooperation between the two nations will be challenging, and divisions within Iran will undercut Washington's ability to trust the government. However, Tehran's opposition to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime may provide a foundation for coordinated efforts.
The United States, in its effort to form a multinational coalition to fight terrorism, is now considering accepting help from Iran. Washington wants to secure support for any U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan for harboring Usama bin Laden, a prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, Agence France-Press reported Sept. 17. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has also said cooperation with Iran is worth exploring.
Public engagement remains out of the question for the short- to mid-term because Iran and the United States have no diplomatic relations and Iran is still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. But Iran has several reasons to want the Taliban ousted as Afghanistan's ruling government, and its opposition to the regime may provide the key for some limited coordination between Tehran and Washington.
Along with help from Pakistan, Iran's support could provide a strategic advantage for any U.S. offensive against Afghanistan. Washington knows this and is now hoping to find a way to build some degree of cooperation. Back-channel negotiations are likely underway. Iran's political leaders, however, are starkly divided about the prospect of working with the United States to launch assaults against another Muslim country.
There are those, like President Mohammad Khatami, who would support re-engagement with Europe and the United States, seeing a U.S. war against terrorism as an opportunity for rapprochement and greater economic development. But others such as supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would oppose any cooperation with America against other Muslim countries, regardless of the economic benefits.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi strongly condemned the terrorist assault, the state-run news agency IRNA reported. Several Iranian government officials also called for efforts to eradicate terrorism and hinted at possible cooperation with America.
There have also been displays of support among the general public. Iran observed a minute of silence before a Sept. 14 World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain in memory of those killed in the attacks, IRNA reported. Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri also sent New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani a message of condolence Sept. 17.
But at the same time Khamenei categorically stated, "The Islamic Republic of Iran ... condemns any probable military action against Afghanistan," IRNA reported Sept. 17. A variety of hard-line dailies in the country have published editorials opposing U.S. retaliation. And senior member of Iran's parliamentary Foreign Policy and National Security Committee warned that Washington should not turn the terrorist attack into a war against Islam, the online Iranian newspaper Hayat-e Now reported Sept. 16.
Given the divisions within the government itself, and the delicate nature of Iranian internal politics, it will be difficult for Tehran to decide on a course of action in working with the United States. These difficulties will likely prevent Iran from providing the United States direct assistance such as military basing or use of its air space, even if diplomatic relations are reopened.
While Tehran may not be able to work directly with Washington, it is uniquely positioned to provide a variety of help, including intelligence and logistical support. For one, its geographic location would allow direct access to neighboring Afghanistan. Iran, with the only Shiite Muslim government in the world, is opposed to the Sunni Muslim Taliban.
Tehran's hard-line Islamic leaders certainly share many similarities with their radical counterparts among the Taliban. But fundamentally, the two groups are like the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. They oppose each other because each is perceived as a threat to the other's way of life.
For instance, the Taliban regime has threatened the Shiite population in Afghanistan. And Iran, as a transit state for drugs produced in Afghanistan, suffers from a host of drug-related problems including a high addiction rate among its own citizens. Geopolitically, the current conflict in Afghanistan brings in a variety of players including India and Russia, thus leaving Iran's eastern flank vulnerable to potential rivals.
Iran's influence with the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's opposition in Afghanistan, could make the rebel group a U.S. proxy fighting force on the ground, with the Northern Alliance relating intelligence and logistical information about the movements of both the Taliban and suspected bin Laden associates.
Iran may be willing to coordinate efforts to bolster the Northern Alliance and perhaps even share limited intelligence with Washington because Tehran would also benefit from the Taliban's downfall.
With the Taliban out and the Northern Alliance filling the power vacuum, Iran would likely see a decrease in refugees from Afghanistan and an increase in border security. Its access to the new ruling government in Kabul would also help it counter Russia's influence in Central Asia and give it greater leverage in its dealings with Moscow, India, Pakistan, the United States and any other nation or multinational oil company with interests in the region.
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