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Iran's chance
Active role in the war against the Taliban

September 20, 2001
The Iranian

Long after Hassan Sabbah's hashishiyun (=assassins) and long before there was any terrorist in the modern sense of the word, there were pirates, groups operating outside of any country's jurisdiction or control. These were viewed in law as foxes and the two were hostem humani generis, meaning "the enemy of mankind." Among some of the most notorious pirates of their day were the Qawasim or Jawasim who terrorized the Persian Gulf, to such an extent that in the course of the early decades of the nineteenth century the British government despatched various expeditionary forces to root out these authors of dastardly deeds and mayhem. The most decisive of these expeditions was conducted in 1820.

In the course of preparing for the expedition, the British government sought to enlist the cooperation of the Iranian government and base its forces on Kishm Island, but the Iranian government obfuscated and eventually the British went it alone; they occupied Kishm regardless. In course of British deliberations preceding the expedition, Captain Henry Willock, who was the British charge d'affaires in Tehran, observed "The vanity of the Persians makes them regard their country as the most favoured spot of the universe and the object of envy and desire to all neighbouring states."

Throughout history, Iran's location has been both a blessing and a curse. In the best of times it is a bridge between the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian, and the East and West. In the worst of time, it is in the way. As the United States and her allies prepare an anti-terrorist expedition to the region, the Iranian government and people need to decide if they would like to be a willing bridge and launching pad or a reluctant stepping stone. It is worth noting that in the grand sweeps of History that visited this region neutrality has not bode well for Iran and Iranians.

On November 1, 1914, Iran declared its neutrality in the Great War that was brewing in Europe. Before it knew, the country was overrun from three sides: The Russians, who had a foothold already in the North, spread further south; the British extended their control over the South; and the Turks, who were the enemies of Britain and Russia, invaded western Iran. It took along time to get these forces out of Iran at the war's end. In part because of this tragic episode, the rule of Reza Shah that followed witnessed the building of a mighty military force, including a navy, that would ensure Iran's territorial integrity and independence.

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Iran was already flirting big time with the Axis Powers, that were the Germans, Italians and Japanese. On June 22, 1941, the German army launched Operation Barbarosa and overran the western areas of the Soviet Union. In Tehran, Reza Shah's government viewed the events with nervous apprehension and reaffirmed its neutrality a few days later. On June 26, 1941, the Soviet Union informed Iran that the Germans were planning to overthrow the Iranian government and Moscow could not sit idly by as Iran become a German base.

In the previous war, the exigencies of the times had required the breaching of Iran's pretensions to chastity. History was about to repeat itself, especially now that Iran provided the only viable supply route to Russia. When Russia and Britain asked Iran for permission to use Iran as a transport route, Iran refused. Behind a flimsy veil of neutrality, Reza Shah sought to defend Iran's integrity in the middle of a worldwide calamity. The leadership's exaggerated view of the Iranian armed forces may have helped in the belief that this time around Iranian neutrality could be defended.

In the predawn hours of August 25, 1941, the British and Soviet forces attacked Iran, from the south and north, respectively. The British forces sank the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian naval units in the Caspian Sea were seized and carried off by the Soviet navy. The Allied forces quickly neared Tehran. On September 17, 1941, Reza Shah bowed to the inevitable and abdicated the throne in favor of his son Mohammad-Reza.

In the Persian Gulf War, which pitted an international coalition against Iraq and its murderous leadership, Iran chose to be indifferent. As it had fought an exhausting war against the Iraqis, the sympathy of the Iranians was with the coalition, while their relations with Iraq had been sufficient mended for Saddam Hussein to send units of his air force to Iran for safekeeping.

Once again, America is calling on the region and this time, unlike during the Gulf War, Iran is dead smack dab in the middle of the fray. As long as the United States can guarantee Iran's western flank from Iraqi attacks, Iran must consider an active role in the war against medievalism of the Taliban regime, its narco-traffic and guest of honor. To be sure, the United States considers Iran as a sponsor of terrorism, a government that murders and terrorizes its own dissidents and which also has links with elements who commit violence against the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, the United States just discovered this last week that there is also another form of terrorism, one that is directed directly against the United States on its account. That is the stuff of which East versus West, Moslem versus Christian sort of deluges are made. Iran should not have a part in that kind of conflict, as it will perish in the fray.

For years, Iran has been hosting millions of Afghan refugees with little if any support from the international community. It has supported the Northern Alliance, along with Russia and Tajikistan. It has had many squabbles with the Taliban and it has mobilized its forces along the eastern frontier several times, while Afghan-origin narcotics claim on a daily basis Iran's youth and adult populations. Here is Iran's chance to contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan into a prosperous and developing country, free of medievalism. In that regard, Iran and the United States should stand shoulder to shoulder, regardless of the old grievances. This is no time to settle the old scores; it is time for these two temperamentally similar countries to open a new account with one another.


Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and practices law in Massachusetts.

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