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2001 In Review: U.S. And Iran Chart Different Courses Over War On Terror

  • Charles Recknagel

The year 2001 saw new strains emerge between Iran and the United States, as Washington mobilized an international coalition to battle terrorism. At the same time, Iran's domestic politics continued to be dominated by a hard-line crackdown on reformists seeking greater political and social freedom. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reviews some of the highlights of the past 12 months.

Prague, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The year 2001 brought few improvements in either Iran's strained relations with the U.S. or the ability of its reformers to liberalize the country's Islamic system.

Still, the year did produce some surprises, including an unexpected expression of sympathy from Tehran to Washington over the 11 September attacks in the United States. The outreach came as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told the UN General Assembly in New York in November that he strongly condemned the terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens.

President Mohammad Khatami said: "The violence and terror machine did not stop a moment. One of the most violent and ruthless atrocities was terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens. In the name of the Iranian nation and government, and based on the clear and firm principles I believe in, I condemned those anti-human and anti-Islamic acts and, in a letter to the UN secretary-general, suggested that a meeting of heads of states be held to adopt measures to fight terrorism."

But amid the sympathy for September's terror victims, divides quickly appeared between Iran and the U.S. over the form of Washington's response to the attacks. Tehran sharply criticized U.S. air strikes targeting Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, saying the bombing killed civilians and risked destabilizing the region. And the Iranian government rejected U.S. efforts to lead a global war against terrorism, demanding instead that any such efforts be conducted through the UN.

At the same time, Tehran accused Washington of seeking to define terrorism to suit only its own ends after the U.S. dubbed as terrorists several Islamic Lebanese and Palestinian groups that Tehran considers to be national liberation organizations.

As the air strikes progressed, Iran continued to express strong differences with the United States, despite the fact both countries oppose the Taliban and seek a broad-based future government in Kabul.

One Iranian objection that could grow more important in the months ahead concerns the U.S.-led coalition's plans for international peacekeepers in Afghanistan. Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said in November that Tehran does not agree with the readiness of some coalition members, such as Turkey, to send outside forces to guarantee security in the country. Kamal Kharrazi said: "[Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit] mentioned that there is talk about this, and I expressed my opinion, saying that Afghan issues must be settled within the framework of Afghanistan's internal groups."

Iran, like Russia, has previously backed Afghanistan's minority-based Northern Alliance against the majority Pashtun-based Taliban, which until recently received support from Pakistan. Iran has said it particularly wants to assure respect for the rights of Afghanistan's Shiite Hazaras, whom it regards as co-religionists.

Iran's and America's charting of separate courses over the war on terrorism only added to the strains that generally characterized their relations over the past 12 months.

One measure of the continuing tensions between the two countries was the renewal of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) by the U.S. Congress when it expired in August. The renewal maintained a threat of punitive sanctions against foreign firms that make substantial investments in Iran's energy sector.

The renewal of ILSA followed just weeks after Washington linked Tehran to a 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded another 372 Americans. A U.S. federal grand jury issued in June an indictment of 13 Saudis and a Lebanese for the bombing of the Al-Khobar military housing complex in eastern Saudi Arabia and cited Iran as supporting those involved in the operation.

The renewal of ILSA and the linking of Iran to the Al-Khobar bombing appeared to set back any immediate prospects of U.S.-Iranian ties improving after the re-election of moderate President Khatami on 8 June. Early in his first term, Khatami spoke in favor of greater cultural exchanges with the U.S. and what he termed a "dialogue of civilizations." But religious hardliners discouraged that process, and it remains to be seen whether Khatami will use his landslide re-election to again explore such openings.

On the domestic front, 2001 brought no let-up in continuing efforts by Iran's hardline-dominated judiciary to curb reformers. The courts closed scores of liberal newspapers and ordered the arrests of hundreds of outspoken reformists on charges of defaming the Islamic Revolution. The ongoing crackdown also has seen more than 30 members of the reformist-led parliament summoned before the courts for criticizing powerful conservatives, in spite of the deputies' constitutional immunity.

As the year draws to a close, it is unclear whether Iran's elected leaders will be able to overcome the hard-liners' resistance and exercise their popular mandate to deliver greater political and social freedoms.

Khatami continued to steer a cautious political course, warning that "extremist measures are against the country's interests" and calling for "moderation" in promoting freedoms. And reformist parliamentarians, while united in desiring change, remained split in their political and economic values, with some preferring democracy with a state-controlled economy and others preferring democracy coupled with a free market.

Still, the president and the reformist-led parliament did demonstrate that they are able to back each other politically -- something that could be important in pushing for changes in the months ahead. The deputies in August gave a sweeping approval to Khatami's new second-term cabinet, despite many legislators' unsparing criticism of some of the nominees as being too weak or too reluctant to liberalize Iran's system.

The approval indicated that while the legislators may differ with Khatami over the pace of reform, they are ready to reinforce his efforts as he starts his new term.