November 13, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 76

War in Afghanistan – The Iranian Stand Part I: Vying With the U.S. for Geopolitical Influence in the Region

November 13, 2001 | By A. Savyon
Iran, Afghanistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 76

Despite Iran's hostility towards the Taliban regime, its leaders sharply reject America's "war on terrorism" in Afghanistan. Both conservatives and reformists expressed fears that America's motives were not to fight terrorism, but to establish a presence in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, gain control of the region's energy resources, contain Iran, and fight Islam. To keep the U.S. at bay, Iranian leaders are suggesting other ways of combating terrorism, namely diplomatic efforts either under the auspices of the United Nations or through Islamic or regional organizations. A political alternative to American military action would stop Taliban-based terrorism without increased American involvement. Additionally, it would enable Iran to reap significant political and economic benefits, expand its influence in the region, and pursue its national interests among the neighboring states. To this end, Iran is currently conducting intensive contacts with Russia and with Central Asian and European Union countries.

Some Iranian political circles are calling to secure Iranian interests not by antagonizing and confronting the US but rather by upgrading relations and cooperating with the U.S.'s fight against terrorism. Iran, they say, can exploit U.S. weaknesses – that is, the U.S.'s need for allies in the region – to advance Iran's own national interests much the same as Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have.

Iranian Reaction to the American Military Strikes
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei cautioned that "the behavior of the U.S. endangers world peace," declaring: "Iran condemns the warmonger approach of the U.S." He warned countries in the region not to offer aid to to the U.S., since this goes against the interests of the Islamic nation. He dismissed American claims that they seek to establish world peace and justice, calling these claims "a pretty weak pretext" that would convince no one.[1]

Judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a prominent conservative, maintained that the U.S.'s attack on Afghanistan was in itself "a kind of terrorism." He said that the U.S.'s real goals had nothing to do with terrorism, and that the U.S. was seeking to "to fan the flames of war between the West and the East… and for this reason it is uncovering its [true] goals step by step."[2] He explained that "the massive American military actions will… boost extremism and acts of terrorism, which will result in tarnishing the image of Islam." Shahroudi accused the U.S. of hatching a conspiracy in Afghanistan that resulted in the emergence of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, and by doing so fanning ethnic and political differences in the country so as to replace the model of Iran's Islamic Revolution with a "seemingly Islamic model" (meaning the Taliban).[3]

President Mohammad Khatami defined the U.S. operation as "an act of aggression," the second of two calamities to strike the Afghan people. He expressed regret that Iran's proposal to fight terrorism under the auspices of the UN had not gained general acceptance, and rejected the American statement that "whoever is not with America is a terrorist" on the one hand, and the Taliban statement that "whoever does not accept [the Taliban's] behavior is an opponent of Islam," on the other hand. "Such false and arrogant judgments," he said, "are the root cause of violence, terror, and war." Khatami condemned attempts to link the terror attacks on the U.S. to Islam, stating that "Islam and the Holy Koran are neither tools for violence and terror actions, nor are they instruments to justify helplessness and incompetence of Muslims against their enemies and those who have their eyes on the interests and the resources of the Islamic states."[4]

The Roots of the Iranian Reaction: Fear of American Hegemony in the Region
Iran's strong reaction reflects its fears that America will expand its influence in countries bordering Iran and will strengthen its grasp on geo-strategic areas rich in energy resources that Iran itself wants. Historically, western Afghanistan was under Iranian influence both before and after its independence in 1740. The city of Herat had once been an Iranian capital. Iran also considers the linguistic, cultural, historic, and religious connection many Afghans feel with Iran to be a reflection of Iran's sphere of legitimate influence.

Iran's ruling conservative establishment also cultivates dogmatic hostility towards the U.S., regularly warning of "American expansionist schemes," whose final goal, they claim, is the undermining of the Islamic regime in Iran.

Khamenei stated that the main purpose of the U.S. military action is to gain "hegemonism" [sic] and expand its domination over other parts of the world. "The U.S.," he said, "is going to set a model in the world by taking military action against one country under the pretext of arresting several suspects. There have been notorious terrorists in different parts of the world, but when had such an action been taken in the past?"[5]

Expediency Council head and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading conservative, warned the U.S. that containment of Iran would eventually undermine U.S. security: "If the Americans also dream of reaching Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, and of containing Iran, there will be an extended Jihad within the Islamic world; there will be no security, and America will be dealing with new circumstances."[6]

Abofazle Shakoori, vice president of the Majlis Security Commission, claimed that the "real objective of the U.S. was to establish military bases in Central Asia… [to get to] the region's oil and gas resources." He added that the American attacks on Afghanistan were part of a long-term strategy aimed at consolidating a geo-political threat to China, India, and Russia, and at enabling the U.S. to control Iran via northern Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan.[7] Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Commander in Chief Yahya Rahim Safavi, another conservative, explained that America's prime objective in the region was to "gain domination in Central Asia and the Caucasus region, because of the huge hydrocarbon reserves in the Caspian Sea," along with "control of the Gulf's oil fields."[8]

The Foreign Ministry mouthpiece Tehran Times, which is close to Supreme Leader Khamenei, claimed that it was not a war on terror that motivated the U.S. strikes against Afghanistan, but its intention to take control of Persian Gulf oil[9] and to "set up military bases in the region with the intention of exerting influence over the Central Asian countries and getting access to the regional oil and gas reserves." The paper added that "there are signs showing that the U.S. and Britain aim to establish another Israel in this part of the world through disintegration of Afghanistan by exploiting ethnic conflict in that country… partition[ing] Afghanistan and establish[ing] three governments in the north, center, and south…" The paper also reported that the deposed Afghan King Zaher Shah would be set to rule the central part of Afganistan, thus "the government in the central part of Afghanistan will turn into a regional base for the U.S."[10]

The reformist Iran Daily said that one possibility was that "the U.S. wants to establish a regional base to better monitor the nuclear activities of India and Pakistan and also Iran's activities in general," and to gain "better supervision of India's and Pakistan's nuclear activity and of Iran's activities in general," and that the U.S. was "keen on exercising control over Central Asia."[11]

Both the secretary of the Islamic Coalition Society and the editor of the conservative daily Kayhan stated that the motive for the American strikes was war on Islam.[12]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1] Resalat, October 16, 2001; Tehran Times, October 16, 2001. Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi stated that the American strikes were a "big blunder" and heralded the collapse of the U.S. in the international arena, as had happened to the USSR. "The U.S. will definitely be the main loser in this war" (IRNA, October 18, 2001).

[2] IRNA, October 4, 2001; Kayhan, October 13, 2001; Entakhab, October 14, 2001.

[3] IRNA, October 4, 2001; Iran Daily, October 22, 2001.

[4] IRNA, October 12, 2001, October 14, 2001; Kayhan, October 13, 2001; IRNA, October 8, 2001; see also the Majlis's condemnation of the U.S. strikes against Afghanistan, Kayhan, October 9, 2001; and their condemnation by Guardian Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Entakhab, October 11, 2001.

[5] IRNA, October 8, 2001; Kayhan, October 9, 2001.

[6] Hayat-e No, October 11, 2001. According to the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, published in London, Rafsanjani said, "If the Americans think that they can intrude into… Central Asia and increase their pressure on us by surrounding Iran, Lebanon, and the Palestinians… the security of the U.S. and Europe will be undermined" (October 11, 2001). The conservative view that confrontation with the US is "inevitable" if the West gains ground in the region appeared in the Iran Daily (October 25 2001).

[7] Tehran Times, October 17, 2001.

[8] IRNA, October 8, 2001; October 13, 2001.

[9] Tehran Times, October 11, 2001.

[10] Teheran Times, October 18, 2001. The prayer leader Hojjatoleslam Dorri-Najafabadi also expressed apprehensions that the U.S. intended to establish a puppet government in Afghanistan, thus circumventing domestic U.S. crisis and influencing the Middle Eastern countries (Iran Daily, October 14, 2001).

[11] Iran Daily, October 10, 2001.

[12] Resalat, October 16, 2001; Kayhan, October 10, 2001.

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