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U.S./Iran: Relations Become Tense After Washington Comments, Warnings

Prague, 11 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Iran have intensified after published reports quoted unnamed Pentagon and U.S. intelligence officials as expressing concern that Tehran is seeking to exert its influence in border regions in western Afghanistan.

"The New York Times" quoted the same intelligence officials as alleging that Iran has been sending weapons to local Afghan tribesmen and that it has agents in the region working against the new interim government in Kabul. The intelligence officials also say Iran is giving refuge to Al-Qaeda fighters who fled Afghanistan.

Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi refuted the intelligence reports, telling AP that Iran has never been on "good terms" with the Taliban or its Al-Qaeda supporters. He said Iran does not allow "terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda" into the country.

But U.S. President George W. Bush on 10 January issued a stern warning to Iran, which the U.S. says is a state sponsor of terrorism. Bush said Tehran must be a "contributor in the war against terror" and cautioned against any attempt to undermine Afghanistan's new government. He said such moves will be dealt with by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in "diplomatic ways, initially."

"Our nation in our fight against terror will uphold the doctrine: 'You are either with us or against us.' And any nation that thwarts our ability to rout terror out where it exists will be held to account one way or the other," Bush said.

Bush added that he hopes Iran will continue to be what he called a "positive force" in the war on terrorism.

Iranian television reported on 10 January that Hamid Reza Asefi, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, rejected Bush's remarks as "baseless" and said Iran's policy toward Afghanistan is based on fostering the country's independence.

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has called Bush's comments "rude and impudent."

But international relations expert Pirooz Mojtahedzadeh, who teaches in Tehran and London, says some aspects of the U.S. accusations against Iran have a basis in fact: "Iran has been exerting influence in western parts of Afghanistan for quite a long period of time. It is a well-known fact, and everyone is familiar with this situation. I don't think this accusation will tell us anything new."

Mojtahedzadeh says Iran does not have an official policy geared toward destabilizing Afghanistan, but that independent actors within the Tehran government may pursue such goals to thwart American interests in the region.

"There could be individuals or groups within the establishment in Iran who might on their own initiative decide to act in these ways that the country has been accused of, sheerly because of their opposition to expanding American influence in Afghanistan," Mojtahedzadeh said. "That is a possibility we could consider. Yet if that is a possibility, I'm sure the government in Iran must be quite vigilant in that respect and act swiftly to stop those sorts of things. But this is also very difficult because we are talking about a situation of several hundred kilometers -- miles -- of uncontrollable border areas, a situation where there is a constant flow of refugees from Afghanistan into Iran."

Mojtahedzadeh says the U.S. needs to tone down its warnings to Iran and concentrate on bettering relations between the two longtime foes, which have improved considerably since 11 September.

"The political class in Tehran is quite unhappy about these new waves of accusations against their policies in the region. The sheer fact that Tehran has been very quick in denying all these accusations shows that they are not happy with these developments and that they would like to go back to the situation where they could repair their relationship with the United States," Mojtahedzadeh said.

Other developments also have troubled Iranian relations with the U.S. The U.S. State Department recently accused Iran of involvement in an attempt to smuggle arms to Palestinian militants aboard a ship seized by Israel in early January.

But Mojtahedzadeh says if the U.S. is going to make such accusations, it needs to provide evidence. Otherwise, he says, the U.S. runs the risk of alienating Iran and damaging attempts to build stability and cooperation in the region.