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memri
November 14, 2001 No.
77

War in Afghanistan – The Iranian Stand Part II: The Iranian Alternative to Dealing with Taliban's Terror

By: A. Savyon*

Watching the US expanding its influence in the region, Iran is focusing on a political alternative to America's "war on terrorism." Iranian efforts are aimed at resolving the Afghanistan crisis through the framework of the UN's regional apparatus, the Six-Plus-Two Group[1], so that Iran would be the major beneficiary, both politically and economically, and would also be able to pursue its national interests in the neighboring states.[2]

President Khatami stated that having the UN step in is the best way of dealing with terrorism and the crisis in Afghanistan.[3] He added that Iran would take up "a more active diplomacy" in the coming days, and called on all countries, especially Muslim and regional states, to cooperate and to repel threats, especially to Muslim countries."[4] Indeed, Iran is currently conducting intensive diplomatic contacts with countries in the region as well as EU countries in order to secure its interests.[5] Khatami declared that Iran would cooperate with the UN, the Six-Plus-Two Group, and the EU to set up a broad-based government in Afghanistan incorporating all ethnic groups and parties, and warned against "installing an imposed government [there] without considering the position and demands of the regional people."[6]

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, together with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, called for the Six-Plus-Two Group to resolve the Afghanistan crisis.[7] Referring to possible US moves to return Zaher Shah to Afghanistan, he also rejected externally-imposed plans and called for a legitimate, broad-based government including all Afghan ethnic groups, under the supervision of the UN.[8]

The Iran Daily called on the EU, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the US to sit down at the negotiating table. Then, the paper said, Tehran would be able to "play a key role and assert its regional and international clout."[9] In a similar vein, Judiciary head Shahroudi said, "All Islamic states… Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular, are responsible to prevent materialization of US and UK goals against world Muslims." He called on the countries to act in the framework of the OIC and "do our best to prevent outbreak of a full-scale war in the region."[10]

Strengthening Iran's Position Through Dialogue With the U.S.?
Despite the consensus among conservatives and reformists that American influence in the region was a threat, the view that Iranian interests could be strengthened not necessarily through confrontation with the US, but rather through dialogue has recently gained support.

This approach is supported primarily by reformist elements, but was expressed also by an important conservative, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei, who had headed the Revolutionary Guards for 16 years. Rezaei defined the chances of Iran-US hostilities as "almost zero," and that "in fact, Iran is the solution to this crisis. Although the US is dissatisfied with Iran, it seriously needs [it]." He explained how "Iran can have an effective role in establishing security in this region [because of the political vacuum in central Asia caused by the collapse of the USSR], not as a US gendarme but as a representative of the international community. We think that finally the US will reach this conclusion."[11]

Majlis Member Reza Yousefian said, "Iran must change its tactics for safeguarding its national interests in view of regional conditions." He added: "The presence of America in the region and the denunciation of the strikes on Afghanistan do not and should not hinder our plans concerning our common [Iran and US] stances. We may have deep differences of opinion… but we can also sit at the negotiating table… and reach a common standpoint. Of course, this does not mean we have official relations with that country." He clarified, "We can raise our demands within the framework of the Six-Plus-Two Group, and the Geneva Initiative. The important point is to gain the upper hand in all talks. Then the US will be compelled to accept our conditions…. This is a unique opportunity that may not recur."[12]

Other reform Majlis members supported this approach, while criticizing the government for not utilizing the opportunity to advance Iranian interests by upgrading relations with the US. Majlis Member Ali Shakuri-Rad said that the Foreign Ministry should "utilize the opportunity and conduct a dialogue with Washington, as this will benefit not only mutual interests of the two countries but will also pave the way to release frozen Iranian assets in the US." The members also accused the Foreign Ministry of negative diplomacy that would distance Iran from the decision-making on Afghanistan's political future. Gholomhossein Barzegar, a member of the Majlis Commission on National Security and Foreign Affairs, said, "We would have got concession from the US, but we didn't. Iranian assets have been frozen in the US, but no one talks about that because we have no relations with the US," and added, "We should think about our [narrow] national interests if we don't want to lag behind in international development."[13]

Recently, the Iranian press has mentioned secret contacts with the US. President Khatami denied these allegations, saying that the only contact between the US and Iran had been between their respective interest sections, and with the Six-Plus-Two Group, on the Afghanistan issue.[14] Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi confirmed an exchange of messages between the US and Iran, in which the two agreed that Iran would offer assistance in rescuing American military personnel from Iranian territory if American planes were shot down.[15] However, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that there was no such arrangement.[16]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.


[1] The Six-Plus-Two Group is comprised of Afghanistan's neighbors Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, Iran, and Pakistan, along with Russia and the US.

[2] The reformist Iran News stressed that Iran needed to do all it could, "politically and diplomatically, to convey the fact that the country is the best possible route for any energy pipeline transferring the oil and gas reserves of the Central Asian republic to the international market." Iran News, October 16, 2001.

[3] IRNA, October 12, 2001; October 23, 2001.

[4] IRNA, October 11, 2001; October 18, 2001.

[5] IRNA, October 23, 2001. See meetings with the Italian and German foreign ministers and contacts with the Russian foreign minister, IRNA, October 24 2001; meetings with the Austrian chancellor and the Canadian foreign minister, IRNA, October 26, 2001.

[6] IRNA, October 26, 2001.

[7] IRNA, October 10, 2001.

[8] IRNA, October 19, 2001; Iran Daily, October 20, 2001. See Iranian presidential advisor Ataollah Mohajerani's objection to returning Zaher Shah to Afghanistan (IRNA October 20, 2001); Iran's refusal to meet with him, (Entakhab, October 23, 2001); and Iran's objection to including the Taliban in a future government (IRNA, October 23, 2001).

[9] Iran Daily, October 10, 2001.

[10] IRNA, October 11, 2001.

[11] Financial Times (UK), October 14, 2001. It should be noted that the next day, Rezaie denied having said that Iran would work together with the US to fight terrorism (Tehran Times, October 16, 2001).

[12] Iran Daily, October 22, 2001.

[13] IRNA, October 20, 2001; Hayat E-No, October 21, 2001. The reformist Iran Daily also ran an editorial entitled "Back to the National Interest" (October 25, 2001).

[14] IRNA, October 23, 2001. Iran Daily also cited the Japanese news agency Kyodo on the agreement between Iran, the US, Germany, and Italy to oust the Taliban regime, and on this forum's numerous meetings since the attacks on the US (October 21, 2001).

[15] IRNA, October 18, 2001; Iran Daily, October 20, 2001.

[16] IRNA, Tehran Times, October 18, 2001.