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Iran: Tehran Criticizes Air Strikes But Hints At Cooperation

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Since the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan began 10 days ago, Iran has criticized Washington's actions and kept its airspace closed to U.S. warplanes. But now, Tehran has also sent Washington secret assurances it would return any U.S. pilots downed over its territory. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the mixed signals and what they might mean.

Prague, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed for reporters yesterday that Iran has sent Washington assurances it will rescue and return any American pilots who have to crash-land on its soil. Speaking in Istanbul, top U.S. diplomat Powell said, "Iranian officials have indicated to us that they would be willing to perform and [are] ready to perform search-and-rescue missions." But, he added, "I don't think [such rescues] will be necessary because I can't envision us needing it in that part of [our military operations] theater."

Powell's confirmation put an end to a week of speculation that Iran had sent such assurances secretly to Washington through Swiss intermediaries -- a story first reported by "The New York Times." Tehran's message was reportedly a response to a U.S. letter assuring Iran that American forces would respect its territorial integrity and asking for help with any pilots in distress.

The back-and-forth assurances aroused considerable Western press interest because the communication appeared at odds with many of the messages Tehran has sent Washington publicly over the Afghan crisis. Those public messages have expressed consistent opposition to the U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan and demanded that any war on terror be led instead by the UN.

Some of the strongest criticisms of Washington's actions have come from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Shortly after the air raids began on 7 October, Khamenei said America's "true motive" is a "quest for power" in Afghanistan and the region. Early this week, Khamenei accused the United States of trying to drag the world into a war by continuing its air strikes.

The difference in tone between Iran's public and private messages to Washington indicates to some analysts that Tehran is taking a more pragmatic approach to the conflict next door than its official position might suggest.

William Samii, an RFE/RL regional analyst, says Iran may be looking ahead for ways it can help safeguard its interests in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. One way Iran might hope to do that could be by establishing at least a minimum level of communication with the U.S.

Samii says Iran may have been motivated to open a back channel to Washington because it has had little success mustering support among other UN members or even among other Muslim states for pressing the U.S. to abandon the war on terrorism.

"I think the Iranians have pretty much given up on any sort of UN action regarding the war on terrorism. The United Nations can't even define terrorism. Iran has also tried to go with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) for them to decide on what should be done about the war on terrorism and again the OIC said we'll leave it up to the United Nations to define terrorism. So, the Iranians have given up on these multilateral forums, [and] I think they are practical in that way."

Samii says by opening a private channel to Washington, Tehran may be underlining that it is an essential player in the region that refuses to be ignored: "The message is being sent to Washington that although we have many problems with you, look how we can help you. And that might be with dealing with aviators now but in terms of dealing with Afghanistan in the future, I think the Iranian message is one [of], 'You will find it very difficult to do without us.'"

Analyst Samii says this message is being sent to Washington by Iran's leadership free of the usual divides between reformist and conservative camps. Those divides have often seen reformists urging greater opening to the United States while conservatives, and the Supreme Leader, have opposed the calls.

"We have to look at [the recent message to Washington] as coming from a single source. No significant foreign policy action can occur without the Supreme Leader's approval. That is the way the [Islamic Republic's] Constitution is written and that is the way its various institutions are set up to operate."

There has been some press speculation in recent days that Tehran is scrambling to increase its voice in the Afghan crisis because it recently suffered a severe setback to its past strategy of supporting the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Tehran for years has supported the UN-recognized Afghan government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, generally considered the alliance's most effective leader.

But Massoud was assassinated early last month, robbing Tehran of one of its strongest avenues of influence. And, complicating Iran's situation further, Rabbani and the other leaders in the Northern Alliance struck a deal 1 October with Afghanistan's exiled King Zahir Shah to work together to establish a post-Taliban transition government.

Tehran continues to supply the Northern Alliance with arms, as does Russia. But analysts say these recent events now make the Islamic Republic face the unwelcome prospect of seeing a U.S.-backed Shah returning to Afghanistan to inspire the formation of its next government.

Iran's own stake in Afghanistan ranges from the political to the religious and economic. Tehran has long sought to protect the rights of its co-religionist Shi'ia Muslim minority in Afghanistan. At the same time, it has sought to curb any regional spread of Sunni Muslim militancy, such as that espoused by the Taliban. Iran views Sunni Muslim militancy as a direct threat because Sunni extremists regard Shi'ism as outside of Islam.

At the same time, Iran is a player in the regional rivalry over pipeline routes for exporting Caspian basin energy to the world market. Iran, which so far has been excluded as a pipeline route due to U.S. sanctions, could now regard the Afghan crisis as a chance for improving its chances.

William Samii said: "The specific things [the Iranians] could gain from being somehow involved with the future of Afghanistan very much touch on the issue of building pipelines from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. Perhaps they hope to have the elimination of Washington's hostility to the creation of these pipelines."

Prior to the Taliban's rise to power in the mid-1990's, several Western oil companies were interested in building a pipeline to export Central Asian energy from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Should the Taliban fall, the subject of an Afghan pipeline is likely to re-emerge, raising the danger that Iran -- unless it assures otherwise -- may be sidestepped.

As the Afghan crisis plays out, Iran's dual messages of public hostility to Washington and private signals for cooperation may continue. Analysts say this is because the different messages have different audiences.

Regional expert Samii says that the Supreme Leader's strong criticism of what Tehran calls America's "quest for hegemony" in Afghanistan mainly serves domestic political purposes.

"[Iran's hard-liners] get a lot of mileage out of having enemies, making themselves look like they are surrounded by hostile countries. This gives the Iranian government a ready excuse for its inability to run the country efficiently, for its constant suppression of human rights, for the weakness of the economy. When it closes a newspaper, the Iranian government can say that we are doing this to protect people or because this newspaper has become a base for American reforms. And when people don't have jobs, Tehran can blame U.S. economic sanctions."

By contrast, Tehran's hints of cooperation with Washington may reflect its increasingly pragmatic foreign policy concern over protecting its regional interests. As the air strikes in Afghanistan continue, international diplomacy is already focusing on the challenges of nation-building once the crisis is over. Iran can ill afford to be left out of the process.

In Iran itself, newspapers today paid little attention to the news that Tehran has offered to rescue downed U.S. flyers. Two newspapers, "Entekhab" and "Hayat-e-Nu," ran a dozen lines on the subject on their second pages. Two other papers, "Khorasan" and "Toseh," only presented the news in brief translations of articles from "The New York Times" and Saudi Arabia's "Al-Watan."

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