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Iran: Tehran Tones Down Rhetoric

  • Michael Lelyveld

Despite a recent warning about U.S. ambitions, Iran has toned down its rhetoric against Western influence in the Caspian Sea since the start of the war against terrorism. Experts see the change as another possible sign of emerging understandings between Washington and Tehran.

Boston, 17 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards has warned that Western nations will try to make gains in the Caspian Sea as part of their war against terror. But the statement seems to be one of Iran's few harsh comments on the Caspian since the events of 11 September.

Speaking to a group of cadets recently, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi said, "America and its allies are trying to launch a new phase of a presence in the region, which will lead to intense rivalry among European powers and multinational companies." Safavi added, "The results of regional development have obviously made the Caspian Sea the focus of attention of regional and ultra-regional powers," the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported.

The remarks may be the first public attempt by an Iranian official to draw a link between U.S. policy in the Caspian and the war in Afghanistan. Since the start of the campaign, Tehran has been noticeably restrained in calling attention to the fact that its Caspian neighbors have offered to open their skies to U.S. and allied aircraft.

Iran has generally sought to ease tensions in the Caspian since 23 July, when one of its gunboats threatened two Azerbaijani survey ships in disputed waters, creating the most serious border incident among shoreline states since the Soviet breakup.

Although Safavi's comments in the Caspian city of Chalus were inflammatory, the location 100 kilometers north of Tehran in the center of Iran's coastline also suggested a more defensive posture. Earlier warnings and implied threats about the Caspian have been issued from more distant bases near the border with Azerbaijan.

Denunciations of U.S. influence in the Caspian have also previously been a staple of Iranian statements at meetings with other shoreline states to discuss the decade-old problem of drawing maritime borders. The recent decrease in such rhetoric is especially striking in light of Iran's long opposition to the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf to the south.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau said that Tehran's restraint may be a continuation of its effort to keep calm in the Caspian since the 23 July incident. But he also said, "Perhaps they don't want to complicate their own relations with Central Asian countries that may be more open to a U.S. presence."

Despite a recent strong statement against cooperation with the United States by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there have been several signs of possible progress in relations since the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Pelletreau, who is now a partner at the law firm Afridi and Angell in Washington, pointed to new reports of emerging understandings between the United States and Iran. On 16 October, "The New York Times" reported that Iran has sent a "secret message" to Washington that it would rescue American military personnel on its territory if they were shot down over Afghanistan. In return, the United States has reportedly assured Iran that it will respect its territorial integrity, the paper said.

Pelletreau said the message from the United States to Iran was essentially that, "'We're not going to be doing things behind your back.' I think that should have been reassuring in a couple of regards." The story followed reports on 15 October in Britain's "Financial Times" that Mohsen Rezaie, the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, indicated that Tehran would cooperate with Washington in a war against terrorism, if it was led by the United Nations. The IRNA news agency carried the report the following day without comment.

Roy Mottahedeh, chairman of the Committee on Islamic Studies at Harvard University, told RFE/RL, "I think that the Iranians wish that the effort had been made in some way that they could participate."

The potential for a breakthrough in relations may account for Iran's less confrontational approach on the Caspian. Pelletreau said it is still unclear whether the Bush administration would be receptive to Iranian demands for lifting sanctions and ending opposition to Caspian oil routes through Iranian territory. But he noted that even before 11 September, the administration had been conducting a review of its policy toward Iran. The interagency review is being led by State Department planning director Richard Haass, who was a frequent critic of unilateral sanctions in his previous post as director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.