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Iran: Tehran Opts For Active Opposition To War On Terrorism Led By U.S.

Iran is pursuing an Afghan-crisis policy in opposition to the U.S., seeking to rally Muslim nations to only participate in a United Nations-led coalition and vowing to intercept any U.S. planes that violate its airspace. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at Iran's strategy and the parties within Iran who are behind it.

Prague, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Immediately after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., Iran was quick to offer sympathy for the victims.

The expressions of sympathy made by President Mohammad Khatami were welcomed by U.S. officials as "positive statements" that suggested the two states might find ways to cooperate in battling terrorism.

But since then, Iran has moved from sympathizing with the victims of the attacks to strongly opposing Washington's efforts to muster a massive coalition to punish the perpetrators.

Iranian Defense Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani, on a recent state visit to Moscow, stressed that Tehran will only support a United Nations-led response to the attacks. He told Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov yesterday that "one can make a decision on how to fight terrorism only in a healthy society that is not controlled by superpowers."

Shamkhani recently said that Tehran will confront any U.S. planes that penetrated Iran's airspace during possible strikes on targets in Afghanistan.

Separately, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has made a swing through the Mideast to call on Muslim states to only support a UN-led war on terrorism. His regional swing is in advance of a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, next week in Qatar. The OIC, intended to represent all the world's Muslim peoples, is due to try to seek a united stand on any U.S. military action against Muslim Afghanistan.

Analysts say the messages carried by the top Tehran officials underline that any early debate in Iran about the 11 September attacks being seen as a chance for dialogue with the U.S. is now over.

They say that, instead, Tehran is now pursuing a policy that fully reflects the determination of hardliners to view the Afghan crisis as a confrontation with the U.S. That policy change was signaled by a recent statement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei that said Iran rejects "joining the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, [and] we condemn the American definition of terrorism."

Fereydoun Khavand, a professor of politics at l'Universite Rene Descartes in Paris, says the Iranian leadership's stance against the U.S. is motivated in part by fears that cooperating with Washington in an attack on another Muslim state would erode the legitimacy of Iran's own Islamic Revolution. Fereydoun Khavand:

"For every regime, there is a founding myth, and the founding myth of the Islamic Republic is anti-Americanism. In later years, they have also tried to be pragmatic, but the myth is there, and if it were allowed to collapse -- if Iran were to enter into any kind of American or Western coalition against another Muslim country -- then the whole legitimacy of the Islamic Republic would be in jeopardy."

Shiite Iran opposes the Taliban, which espouses a hostile brand of militant Sunni Islam. But Khavand says the Iranian leadership regards the Taliban as less of a regional threat to Iran than a U.S.-led coalition in the region.

"The hardline leaders of the Islamic Republic know very well that any American operations in Afghanistan could end, for the first time in history, in the establishment of a Western presence in Central Asia, that is Central Asia including Afghanistan. This is a region which since the 19th century has always escaped Western attempts to establish a foothold there, although it has been a stage for the Russians."

Khavand says Tehran worries that the end of the Afghan crisis could mean American forces not only in the Gulf, where they are today, but also in the Caspian region and in Afghanistan -- that is, on almost all of Iran's borders.

Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, says Iran's hard-line position is equally a reaction against Washington trying to organize an international coalition against terror according to the U.S. definition of terrorism. That definition covers several groups that Iran supports, including the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah and militant Islamic Palestinian groups, which Iran calls national liberation organizations. Shahram Chubin:

"I think Iran feels very much under conflicting pressures. On the one hand, it doesn't like the Taliban. It doesn't like the drug-running in which they have indulged. It doesn't like the instability on its eastern borders. And it doesn't like the persecution of the Shi'ia in Afghanistan."

Chubin continues:

"On the other hand, [Iran] is not too happy about the fact that the United States has mobilized a very large coalition, and the United Nations Security Council, against its definition of terrorism. Iran is not supportive of [Osama] bin Laden or, as far as we know, of the Arab Sunni terrorist movements globally. But it believes that countries that are resisting other states' occupation or trying to liberate their territory have the right to indulge in armed warfare, which is often considered terrorism by the United States."

For all these reasons, Iran's leadership appears now to have decided to take an active role in opposing the U.S.-led coalition, a position in marked contrast to its passive stance regarding the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

Chubin says the Iranian leadership views its passivity during the Gulf War as an historical mistake that helped lead to the current strong U.S. military presence in the Gulf. And it is determined not to make the same mistake twice. Chubin says:

"The Iranians were very passive in the 1990-1991 [Gulf crisis and] war, when they sat on the sidelines, not joining the coalition against Iraq but not opposing it either. And Iran benefited not at all from that in a diplomatic sense. And I think there is a decision in Iran to try and lift up the Muslim banner and to try and rally the Muslim states around a common institutional approach in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. And, secondly, to try to have an influence through the United Nations on the strategy and campaign that follows."

As Tehran seeks to build international resistance against any U.S.-led coalition, some Iranian officials have sought to rally support by suggesting America's own policies have contributed to the growth of terrorism.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, told a UN debate yesterday that terrorism is a "heinous product" of foreign policy based on the idea that "might makes right." He was speaking on the second day of a week-long debate in the General Assembly in search of measures against international terrorism.