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Iran: Analysts Say Clerics Fear Pro-U.S. Afghan Government

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The clock seemed to turn back early this month when the U.S. and Iran exchanged fiery words, this time over American accusations that Tehran is trying to destabilize the new, pro-U.S. government in Afghanistan. Iran denies the charge, but many analysts say increased American influence in the region -- and a pro-Washington government in Kabul -- is a direct threat to the interests of Tehran's religious leaders.

Washington, 14 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Islamic Republic of Iran rose to power in a 1979 revolution that was noted for deposing the pro-America shah, famously branding Washington the "Great Satan," and for holding U.S. Embassy personnel hostage for 444 days.

Twenty-three years later, America is back -- not in Iran, but in its neighborhood. Afghanistan's new interim government is friendly toward Washington, and the U.S. has military bases -- for now -- in nearby Pakistan and Uzbekistan. And to the west, there's NATO ally Turkey, a Muslim country that emphasizes secular democracy over religious rule.

Analysts say such a re-assertion of American influence in the region -- especially in Afghanistan -- is a major source of concern for Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his supporters, whose grip on power is already under fire from a rising pro-Western domestic reform movement clamoring for change.

Analysts say Iran's concern could explain its alleged attempts to destabilize the new Afghan government of interim leader Hamid Karzai.

U.S. President George W. Bush on 10 January issued a stern warning. He told Iran not to destabilize Kabul or give shelter to Al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan. His remarks -- denounced as "rude and impudent" by a former Iranian president -- came as Washington accused Iran of supplying a ship with weapons allegedly destined for the Palestinian Authority. The ship was seized by Israel on the Red Sea.

Bush's remarks followed newspaper reports quoting unnamed U.S. intelligence officials as saying Tehran is arming Afghan tribesman and has agents in Kabul working against Karzai's government.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reiterated some of Bush's concern about Iran, which the U.S. considers a sponsor of terrorism, at a Pentagon news conference on 11 January.

"We are supportive of their [Afghanistan's] goal to achieve stability and to resist any external influence on them, including, as the president pointed out yesterday, excessive Iranian influence."

Iran's Foreign Ministry called Bush's accusations "baseless" and said Iranian policy toward Afghanistan is based on fostering the country's independence.

Judith Kipper is an Iran specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent think tank. Kipper says she hopes the two countries will cool their rhetoric and work to try to improve relations, which they had appeared to be doing after Iran strongly condemned the September terrorist attacks on America and offered non-military assistance in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is a neighbor of Iran, and Iran today has real interests in having a situation in Afghanistan that is not hostile to Iran," Kipper said. "There should be a constant process of consultation and information so that Iran does not feel it is being left out of any planning and therefore potentially finding a hostile situation again on its border, because many of the countries surrounding Iran are now very much linked to the United States. And I'm sure in Tehran that that is perceived as a threat."

But other analysts say Iran might want to destabilize Afghanistan so that it is not destabilized itself.

Patrick Clawson is an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, another think tank. Clawson says Tehran is likely to view any pro-Western government in Kabul as a threat to its vital interests. He told RFE/RL that Iranian leaders -- already faced with pro-Western "threats" within Iran itself -- would hardly welcome support for such forces in Afghanistan.

"The supreme religious leader and religious hard-liners have, over the last year and a half, engaged in a very tough crackdown on the reform movement," Clawson says. "And so while the great majority of the Iranian people have shown that they're interested in all kinds of reforms -- including showing over the last few months that they want to see an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations -- the people who have power, the people who control the guns, don't agree."

Yazdi Ibrahim is part of Iran's reform movement. Tehran's first foreign minister after the 1979 revolution, Ibrahim stepped down in protest at the decision to take U.S. diplomats and embassy workers hostage. He is now under indictment for antigovernment activities in Iran.

Ibrahim told a Washington gathering in December that, despite widespread arrests of Iranian reformists and a crackdown on the independent media, it is just a matter of time before big changes sweep the country.

"There is a birth in Iran, there is going to be a new birth in Iran, and all the fuss about that is labor pains," Ibrahim said.

According to Clawson, Iran's "rebirth" could be hastened by the return to Afghanistan of former King Zahir Shah. Clawson says the return of the monarch, who has been exiled in Rome since 1973, would be a blow to Iran's Islamic revolutionaries, who face a reform movement for secular democracy that is partly nostalgic for the shah they overthrew.

"There are a fair number of people in the hard-line Iranian leadership who are very nervous -- very nervous -- about the idea of restoring a monarch [in Afghanistan]," Clawson says. "It sets a very bad precedent, as far as they're concerned."

Clawson added that even if the king returns to Kabul in only a symbolic role, it would still be viewed as a setback for Iranian religious rulers.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is set to visit Afghanistan this week, said on 11 January that he still envisages a role for the deposed monarch in Kabul. Of the former king, Powell said, "We never saw him, nor did he see himself, as the political leader. So we think he still has a role to play. As we go from the interim administration to an expanded government, what exactly the nature of that role would be remains to be seen."

After visiting Pakistan and India, Powell is expected to stop in Kabul on his way to an international conference on rebuilding Afghanistan that starts in Tokyo on 21 January. Powell says estimates for reconstructing the war-ravaged country run to about $8 billion over the next five years.

Kipper of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the international community needs Iran's help in stabilizing its Afghan neighbor -- and that Tehran's cooperation would help secure reconstruction contracts for Iranian firms.

She also says the U.S. recognizes that Iran has important interests in Afghanistan and that the two countries should cooperate there, especially on such efforts as stamping out narcotics cultivation and production.