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Yugoslavia: Iran Caught In Dilemma Over Kosovo Crisis

Prague, 21 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran is caught in a dilemma over how to reconcile contradictory impulses stemming from the Kosovo crisis.

On the one hand, it wants to negatively portray its long-time adversary, the United States, as the hand behind the use of military force in Yugoslavia -- force which is unsanctioned by the United Nations. On the other, it knows NATO's action has the avowed intention of helping (Kosovar) Muslims against the brutal oppression imposed by the Serbians.

Statements by hardline Iranian leaders soon after the commencement of the NATO bombing campaign were unequivocally hostile to the United States and NATO. For example on April 5, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the NATO air strikes as a plot directed toward the "annihilation" of the Muslims in Europe. The following day, Parliament Speaker Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri said the Serbs and NATO were joined in a plot destroy the Muslims and to help the creation of a new American world order.

As the days have gone on, however, there has been a subtle dilution of this hostility. RFE/RL's Iran specialist Bill Samii explains:

"They have lessened their hostile rhetoric to the NATO activities, and they have also changed the way they cover the crisis. In the first two-and-a-half to three weeks, Iranian radio-television coverage and official news agency coverage was almost entirely focused against those activities."

Samii says at first any mention of the refugees was always preceded by video footage or written commentary on the NATO air strikes, so that it indicated a causal relationship -- namely that the bombings led to the refugee crisis. However:

"In the last week, we have seen more and more refugee-only stories, or interviews with refugees who say specifically they want NATO air strikes to continue, that they see this as the only way for the crisis to end".

Samii says events have put the Iranians in an awkward and uncomfortable position. But he says that to somehow "juggle things" with an eye to domestic political concerns is a long-established Iranian forte. Meaning that de facto, they will have to support what NATO is doing, but they probably will never openly express support for it.

For instance, an opening toward Iran, which came in comments by U.S. President Bill Clinton last week, was immediately rejected by Teheran. Samii however does not rule out that the current events could have a positive impact on U.S.-Iranian relations at some time in the future.

Complicating the situation is Iran's current chairmanship of the 55-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Some OIC members have criticized Iran for not being active enough on behalf of the Kosovars. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem is quoted by the semi-official Anatolia news agency as telling Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi that the head of the IOC is expected to do more. Cem took the opportunity to describe Turkey as the "real protector of the people of Kosovo".

And in Lebanon, a Saudi-funded newspaper (al-Sharq al-Awsat) went as far as to criticize Iran for indifference to the Kosovars' plight.

Following those criticisms, the Iranian official press defended the government.

Samii says Iran basically wants the United Nations to find a solution to the Kosovo problem. Since the crisis started, Iran has been highly critical of the UN and its failure to achieve anything. Once again, officials have blamed the United States for sidelining the world body.