Prague, 1 April 1999 RFE/RL) -- NATO's air strikes against Yugoslavia are forcing Iran to look to Moscow as its best hope for protecting its strategic interests in the region.
Iran has at least three stakes in the NATO-Belgrade conflict, which has seen NATO bomb Yugoslavia for more than a week as Serbian forces continue a crackdown in Kosovo. The conflict has driven more than 100,000 Muslim ethnic Albanians out of the southern Serbian province.
First, as chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which groups most Muslim countries, Iran has a responsibility to speak out for the world's Muslims and to pressure Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to refrain from killing and expelling them from his country.
Tehran takes its role as head of the OIC seriously and has repeatedly promised to do all in its diplomatic power to intervene on behalf of the Kosovar Albanians.
Iran's state news agency IRNA reports that when the air strikes began, Iran supported a request by Bosnia's U.N. representative to call for a Security Council meeting. The news agency says that shortly afterward, Tehran also promised the Muslim member of the Bosnian presidency, Alija Izetbegovic, that it would intervene.
So far, Tehran appears to have chosen Moscow to be the vehicle for its diplomatic initiatives. The choice reflects Iran's second interest in the conflict, which is to continue building Moscow as a strategic ally in the face of Tehran's own conflicts with the United States.
But the choice is beset by contradictions. Tehran and Moscow agree in considering the Balkans to be Russia's sphere of influence and in condemning NATO bombings of Yugoslavia. But Russia and Iran have sharply different positions on the Serbs, whom Russia considers a traditional ally but whom Iran has frequently accused of instigating the killings of Muslims in Bosnia and now in Kosovo.
Iran has sought to support Russia's right to mediate in the Balkans by stressing the threats Moscow feels in the face of what it sees as NATO encroachment into its own backyard. Iranian state radio and television commented last month that one reason for Russia's strong opposition to NATO military action against Yugoslavia is its "deep concern over the alliance's eastward expansion."
The next day, Iranian state television added: "Moscow is defending its own traditional sphere of influence. ... Yeltsin has threatened reciprocal action in areas of interest to the West."
Iran underlined its determination to let Moscow try to solve the crisis in a conversation between Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, by telephone early this week. After the meeting, ITAR-TASS reported, both sides called for an immediate end to NATO air strikes. In their discussion, which was renewed the next day, Kharazi is reported to have called on Ivanov to "persuade Belgrade to respect the fundamental rights of the Muslim people of Kosovo."
But in seeking to wed its interests in protecting Kosovo's Muslims with its desire to see Moscow, not NATO, end the conflict there, Tehran risks contradicting its own role in the Balkans, which has been largely built on fighting Serbs.
Beginning with the Bosnian War, Tehran has sought to expand its activities in the Balkans by aiding Muslims militarily, culturally and religiously. In recent years, it also has expanded its economic ties there. In that process, it has often been a fierce critic of Milosevic, even as he has often sought to take shelter under Moscow's wing. As recently as three months ago, the English-language "Tehran Times" -- which is published by a branch of the Islamic Guidance and Culture Ministry -- blamed the "bloody experiences" in the Balkans on the "racist policies of Belgrade and the double-standard of the European countries."
The paper went on to say that while the West is willing to bomb Iraq, it has done nothing about Serbian "oppression of ethnic Albanian Muslims." Therefore, said the daily, one can see that "the West is following a double-standard policy, which is always detrimental to the interests of the Muslims."
Once NATO action commenced, Iranian state radio increased its criticisms of Western policy. In a commentary last week, the radio said that "America, Britain and France" had bypassed the UN because they knew Russia and China opposed military operations against Yugoslavia. It also said that the operation was being conducted without proper evaluation of its "outcome and ramifications."
Iran has also struck out at the Serbs. On March 27, the Yugoslav envoy in Tehran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to hear a protest "against the massacre of Muslim Albanians in Kosovo by Serbs," referring to reported killings in the villages of Suva Reka and Orahovac.
How well Iran will be able to continue balancing its different interests in the NATO-Belgrade conflict over Kosovo will depend on events and on how closely Moscow appears to be drawing to the Serbs.
But Iranian President Mohammad Khatami made one effort to simply formulate Tehran's policy in a speech last week. Khatami declared that Iran as a Muslim country is concerned about the fate of Muslims, and as head of the OIC will not tolerate aggression against the rights of Muslims in Kosovo and the Balkans.
He went on to say the NATO air strikes are "illegal," and that they will not benefit the "oppressed Muslims of Kosovo."
Finally, he said, the bombings will "only serve the interests of major powers who were seeking to impose their domination over the Balkans."
(William Samii is a regional specialist with RFE/RL's Communications Division.)