U.S. warily eyes `positive signals' for Iran alliance

Hostility from 1979 hostage crisis eases amid `common interests'

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 19, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Seeking worldwide support to demolish the Osama bin Laden terrorist network, the Bush administration is cautiously feeling out an American nemesis, Iran.

If this effort leads anywhere, it will revive an old Middle East cliche - "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" - and show once again that the United States can't always be fastidious about where it draws support in a crisis.

But that's not all. A new, friendlier U.S.-Iranian relationship could have major implications for a much wider region, affecting not only the future of Afghanistan, where bin Laden is based, but Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East peace process.

The mutual signals began hours after hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon last week. In a statement, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said, "I condemn the terrorist attacks on public centers in American cities which have killed a large number of innocent people."

This was followed by a message of condolence from the mayor of Tehran, Morteza Alviri, to New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a candlelight memorial gathering by about 200 young people in Tehran and a minute of silence at an Iran-Bahrain soccer game to honor those killed.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell responded warily. Asked Monday how he planned to follow up, he said Iran had sent "positive signals" that are "worth exploring. And that's where I would leave it right now."

This is hardly an embrace, but the exchange was far warmer than the epithets of "rogue state" and "Great Satan" that have flown between Washington and Tehran since Iranian militants held Americans hostage in Tehran for 444 days beginning in 1979.

Right now, the two countries share "significant common interests," says Shireen Hunter, an Iran specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

For Iran, the enemy is not so much bin Laden as his Afghanistan hosts, the Taliban. Iran and the Taliban, who rule most of Afghanistan, share a hostility that has tribal and religious roots.

The Taliban, Sunni Muslims, espouse an extremely rigid brand of Islam and are viewed in Iran as anti-Persian and anti-Shiite, the dominant branch of Islam in Iran. Tension exploded after the deaths of eight Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan in 1998. Iran supports the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the Afghan civil war.

Iran, which adjoins Afghanistan's western border, is also on the receiving end of large numbers of refugees and narcotics flowing out of Afghanistan and worries that the intolerant Taliban-bin Laden ideology could spill over into Central Asia, where Iran is trying to spread its own influence.

No official in Washington is saying what the United States might want Iran to do, and Iranian officials have voiced concern about a military strike on Afghanistan.

But one student of the region says the Iranians can be "extremely helpful" if the Taliban refuse to surrender bin Laden and the Americans go to war.

"They know Afghanistan," an area where U.S. intelligence has been weak, said William O. Beeman, an anthropology professor at Brown University. They could also facilitate entry of U.S. troops into the country, he added.

Any collaboration could be politically hazardous for both governments. Iran sits at or near the top of the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism and the administration might invite derision if it sought to include Tehran in the coalition.

"They're [the Iranians] not rethinking their support for terrorism against Israel," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who supports a continued U.S. effort to "contain" Iran. "They will maintain terror as a weapon when it suits their purpose.

In Iran, opposition from powerful conservative clerics could be fierce. Iran might choose simply to stand by and not interfere with American actions, just as it did when the United States fought Tehran's arch-enemy Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

But if the United States decides it needs Iran, Washington probably won't demand proof of a sweeping change in that country's policy.

"If Iran can play a positive role in ridding the world of someone like Osama bin Laden and reducing or eliminating the specter of international terrorism, that's a net positive for us, a net positive for Iran and a net positive for the world," said Greg Sullivan, of the State Department's Near East bureau.

Shifts in U.S. ties have occurred in other crises. In 1991, Powell's predecessor, James A. Baker III, reached out to Syria, turning it from an outcast to an ally.

During the Cold War, the United States found common cause with a variety of states headed by unsavory dictators - among them Manuel Noriega in Panama and Mobutu Sese Seiko in Zaire - with damaging effects that endured beyond the fall of the Soviet Union.

A change in Iran's relationship with the United States could have an impact well beyond the current crisis. Iran exports oil, is a major power in the Persian Gulf, has large deposits of natural gas, offers another supply route for oil from the Caucasus and can undercut or help the Mideast peace process.

Right now, it opposes the process altogether, helping the most radical Palestinian factions attack Israelis. Its support for Hezbollah helps keep Israel's northern border on edge.

"If, as a result of this crisis, the conditions are ripe for a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, the strategic consequences could be far-reaching," said Geoffrey Kemp, of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.

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