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Iran: Muslim Opposition Lukewarm On U.S.-Led War Against Terrorism

  • Charles Recknagel

The world's largest Islamic organization, the OIC, has expressed concern over civilian deaths in Afghanistan but avoided condemning the U.S. strikes. That stance is likely to be a blow to Tehran's hopes for building Muslim sentiment against the U.S.-led war on terror in favor of one led by the UN.

Prague, 11 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When Iran called for the emergency meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) that took place in Doha yesterday, Tehran appeared determined to use the forum to push for an alternative to a U.S.-led war on terrorism.

In the run-up to the conference, Iranian officials had stressed the need for a unified Islamic stance on the nature of the war on terrorism and demanded that any international effort to fight it be led by the UN, not the U.S. Iran has condemned the strikes on Afghanistan as "cruelty" and threatened to intercept any U.S. warplanes that violate Iranian airspace.

At the same time, Iran called for support in its demands for an international definition of terrorism that might include an independent agent like Osama bin Laden but exclude groups that Tehran sees as national liberation organizations.

Such groups include the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian militant Islamic organizations, which Iran supports in their fight against Israel, a state Tehran does not recognize. The U.S. considers those groups to be terrorists.

But by the end of yesterday's meeting of the OIC -- which includes 55 Muslim nations plus the Palestinian Authority -- Iran's positions seemed to have been only partially addressed by the attending foreign ministers.

The OIC's final statement urged the U.S. and Britain to avoid civilian casualties as they strike targets in Afghanistan. But the communique steered clear of condemning the strikes themselves.

At the same time, the conference did not demand that the U.S. pass its leadership role in the war on terrorism to the UN. Instead, it called for a central UN role in combating "the global phenomenon of terrorism." The choice of wording was reported to be an attempt to distinguish between terrorism and what the ministers regard as the legitimate right of groups to resist foreign occupation.

The conference also declared its resistance to any of its members being targeted by the U.S.-led coalition "under the pretext of combating terrorism." That recognized the concerns of several states, including Iraq, that Washington might seek to broaden its military operations to include strikes against terrorist organizations and state sponsors of terrorism beyond Afghanistan.

After the conference, Washington said it was "very pleased" with the results. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking in the American capital, said the statements from the OIC "deplored what happened on the 11th of September." He added that "when one considers the kind of statement that might have come out [of the Doha meeting], I thought it was a pretty good, pretty fair statement."

Analysts say that by not condemning the U.S. strikes on Afghanistan, the conference adopted the stance of moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which in recent days have voiced support of the Western military operations. In doing so, the OIC decision isolated the only three Muslim states that have specifically criticized the strikes: Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

That result may be disappointing for Iran, as the state that called the emergency meeting. Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, says Iran has sought to gain the support of Arab states to give its stance more weight.

"The Iranians want to coordinate Muslim policies amongst states that they feel are important, Syria, Egypt, and others, in order to take a coordinated position to increase their weight cumulatively."

But the analysts say now that the OIC has provided tacit backing for the U.S. operations, Iran is in the unpromising position of being aligned with -- apart from its ally, Syria -- only Iraq. That position is awkward because Iran and Iraq are at odds over what each claim is the other's support of terrorist groups against them. Tehran and Baghdad each back the other country's armed opposition movements.

Chubin says now that the Muslim states have -- as a group -- steered clear of condemning the U.S. strikes on Afghanistan, Iran's calls for the UN to lead any response to terrorism may be increasingly untenable.

"The United Nations Security Council has passed resolutions justifying American policies, essentially, in Afghanistan. Russia and China and Britain and France support the United States, at least on Afghanistan. And so it is a sort of nothing policy to suggest you support the UN [as an alternative option]."

That leaves it uncertain whether or how Iran might continue to pursue a diplomatic strategy of mustering international opposition to U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Another option is to focus on seeking to safeguard its own political interests in Afghanistan, notably by continuing to support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and influencing any post-crisis Afghan settlement.

A top Iranian official reiterated Iran's concern over the political future of Afghanistan yesterday.

Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani said that "America's long-term goal has been to establish its dominance over the oil wells of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea." He added: "The attack on Afghanistan is an excuse toward this aim."

The United States says that its aim in Afghanistan is to bring accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and his associates to justice, and punish the Taliban for providing them a safe haven.