Iran on outside of post-Taliban nation planning

Stability-hungry country lacks effective U.S. ties

War On Terrorism

The World

October 18, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Under mounting pressure to assemble a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, the Bush administration is wrestling with the politically sensitive question of how to get Iran into the act.

Iran, a major regional power that shares a 560-mile border with Afghanistan, has repeatedly felt itself victimized by the instability of that war-torn country and wants a say in the shape of a future government if the Taliban collapses.

Time may be running out. With Taliban forces badly weakened, according to the Pentagon, the State Department and the United Nations are working strenuously to develop a new government and prevent Afghanistan from descending once again into a chaotic civil war.

But while Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has consulted closely with top Pakistani officials about a future Afghan government, and President Bush will likely raise the issue with the Chinese and Russian leadership in Shanghai this week, U.S. officials at this point plan no high-level contacts with Iran and instead will largely rely on the United Nations and intermediaries from other countries for communication.

Meanwhile, an Iranian official at the United Nations says his government has had "difficulty" influencing the process.

The United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations. However, in the weeks since the terror attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the two nations have exchanged a series of positive signals, holding out the possibility that the U.S.-led war on terror and the crisis in Afghanistan might bring about an improvement in relations.

While publicly opposing U.S. military action against the Taliban, Iran has said in a confidential message that it would try to rescue any U.S. servicemen who landed in Iran in distress, and the United States has praised Iran's cooperation on humanitarian relief for Afghans displaced by war.

In addition, some analysts in Washington give credence to reports that Iran expelled Imad Mughniyeh, allegedly one of the top terrorists belonging to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and who is on the United States' list of the 22 most-wanted terrorists.

"If the Iranians want to get the word out now [about the expulsion], this could imply they want a different relationship with Hezbollah," whose acts of terrorism Iran has backed in the past, says Ray Takeyh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But any move to improve the relationship bumps up against the twin hurdles of mutual distrust and domestic political opposition that have largely frozen U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic revolution in the country in 1979 and the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Mutual hostility runs deep more than two decades later, despite the election and re-election of a moderate Iranian president, Mohamad Khatami, who is trying to counter the conservative religious hierarchy's grip on the levers of power.

Iran tops the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism. It backs violent opponents of the Israeli-Arab peace process and has alarmed the United States, Persian Gulf states and Israel with its drive to acquire nuclear weapons and achieve dominance in the region.

Even if the White House wanted to improve ties, it would run into strong opposition on Capitol Hill, where Iran is widely viewed as a rogue state.

The countries' only regular channel of communication is through Swiss embassies in the United States and Iran. Mostly, however, the two countries communicate through public statements.

The one issue on which this pattern has broken down in recent years is Afghanistan. As they watched the Taliban cement its hold on much of the country, officials of the United States and Iran met in several different forums in a bid to restore stability in the region.

Madeleine K. Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, met twice with foreign ministers from countries neighboring Afghanistan, including Iran, in a forum at the United Nations.

At meetings of this forum - called "Six plus Two" for the six nations that border Afghanistan, the United States and Russia - American and Iranian officials often joined forces in pressing for tough criticism of the Taliban.

U.S. and Iranian officials met twice recently at multilateral sessions in Geneva dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and ways to set up a stable, post-Taliban regime.

Of the first session, dealing with humanitarian aid, an observer inside the room said, "There seemed to be a certain amount of rapport between the American and Iranian delegates."

Iran's view of the shape of a future government is strikingly similar to that of the United States. Both have called for a government to be determined by the Afghan people themselves but say it should be "broad-based" and represent all the nation's ethnic groups.

"The main thing is that the Afghans themselves reach agreement and that it not be imposed by anyone," says Hossein Nosrat, a spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations.

Iran's concerns are many. Home to more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees, it also is prey to drug traffic from Afghanistan.

Iran, which is mostly Shiite Muslim, says the Taliban has massacred many of Afghanistan's minority Shias.

Iran, moreover, has given military aid to opposition Northern Alliance forces. It also has an uneasy relationship with Pakistan.

"Iran is worried about chaos and about an increased American military presence," said Shaul Bakhash, a specialist on Iran at Virginia's George Mason University. "They have a perennial fear of encirclement."

But, says Bakhash, they don't feel they have much leverage to influence events.

The Bush administration is considering sending Powell to another Six plus Two meeting, which might give him the chance to talk directly with Iran's foreign minister. But such a meeting probably would not be held until the second week in November, possibly too late to affect fast-breaking events on the ground.

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