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Iran Stops Short of Helping Anti-Terror Coalition - 2001-09-27

The U.S. administration is focusing its efforts on building an international coalition to fight against terrorism. Despite condemning the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei says his country would not help the United States attack Afghanistan.

Iranian leaders have condemned the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington but stopped short of offering help for a U.S.-led coalition against Afghanistan.

That is not a surprise. Iran's religious leadership has always considered the United States its enemy, calling it simply the Great Satan. The U.S. State Department lists Iran as one of the world's terrorist-sponsoring governments. It broke relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled Shah Reza Pahlevi, a U.S. ally.

But Iran watchers like Ali Reza Nourizadeh of the London-based Center for Iran and Arab Studies, says the September 11 terrorist attack could provide Iran's reformist factions an opportunity to edge the country closer to the West.

"For 22 years, you were talking about the Great Satan and you are saying this to America and suddenly, you look to the streets of Tehran and see hundreds of students with candles and shouting condolences to America and 'Death to Taleban,'" he said.

Political analyst Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University lists reasons why it would be in Iran's interest to line up with a campaign against the neighboring Taleban leadership.

"There is no love lost between Iran and the Taleban," he said. "The two almost went to war three years ago. Taleban create instability on Iran's borders, it's a source of harmful drug traffic and creates for Iran a large Afghan refugee problem. I think Iran would like to see the Taleban curbed and another regime more representative of the full spectrum of Afghan political groups in power in Kabul."

But Professor Bakhash says Iran's religious leaders, while no friends of the Taleban, worry about U.S. military presence next door.

"Khamanei and others would be concerned about the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan so close to the Iranian border with the possibility the U.S. troops would use facilities in the states of Central Asia, close to Iran," he said. "It feeds Iran's perennial fear of encirclement by the Americans."

Iran's President Mohammad Khatami has called the United States arrogant for its stated position that countries are either with the United States or with the terrorists.

Still, Iranian officials did meet recently with European envoys to explore ways to fight terrorism and improve diplomatic relations.

And, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a television interviewer earlier this week there had been indirect contacts with Iran about the U.S. efforts to build a coalition against terrorism.

"We've heard from the Iranians through channels and we're going to explore the possibility," he said. "Iran has always been against the Taleban and against this kind of activity in Afghanistan and they've also supported terrorist organizations. You've got to be ready to go against all terrorist organizations."

Washington charges that Iran continues to support the Hezbollah guerillas based in southern Lebanon and other forces opposed to the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace process.