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    Prepare for the worst
    But work for reconciliation

    Sept 15, 1998
    The Iranian

    I just got back from Iran this Saturday. After reading Laleh Khalili's article regarding the tensions on the Afghan border ["We don't need this"], I thought we should think about what our role can be as Iranians abroad in deterring a war.

    A few things come to mind:

    I suggest that we would be more successful in being heard should we express our views through Iran's domestic media. The Iranian press has been very active in crying out against war. For example, well before the fate of the Iranian diplomats was known, and even before the massing of 70,000 Revolutionary Guards on the Afghan border, a well-known Iranian political scientist, Sadeq Zibakalam, cried foul in an excellent article published in Tous. Zibakalam's piece was only one of the many written against mounting tensions and critical of Iran's policy on Afghanistan. Perhaps we can help by adding to the anti-war chorus. Judging from talking to people on the streets and in shared taxis in Tehran, the mood among the population is quite against war.

    Iran is rapidly being painted in a corner diplomatically, especially now that the Bamian has fallen to the Taliban and the Afghan Shiite population is in severe duress. If we are to avoid war, we need not only to speak out against it, but to also help the government of Iran think of a way out. It will behoove this cause if we lay out as many ways out as possible for the Islamic Republic. Perhaps those who have access to international security experts can go knocking on their door, and seek their advice. I doubt Iran's government has as much access to these experts as some expatriates.

    There are numerous other ways we may be able to deter any prolonged armed conflict and bring it to an end as quickly as possible. For example, we may be able to find Afghan students and expatriates abroad who have ways of being heard in their country. Maybe we can engage their support in avoiding conflict. We can at the very least spark off much more open and candid debates between Iranians and Afghans abroad that can take place in either country. Such debates will help increase understanding between the two sides.

    I don't mean to sound that conflict is inevitable at this stage. There is still some room for optimism: The Iranian population and even leadership is not eager to engage in war against Afghanistan. The only group in favor is a potpourri of zealous rightists who hope war will give them the ability to crack down on many of the civil liberties that have burgeoned during the Khatami era. The liberal press is a prime target of this group. But most elements in the Iranian government are not for armed conflict. Iran hosts nearly 2.5 million Afghan refugees. Even if only 50,000 of them are supporters of the Taliban, they can create a mess inside the country.

    Also, while the Afghan forces are nothing like the Iraqi army, it is next to impossible to restrain even a handful of guerilla fighters from becoming a permanent nuisance across such a huge border. Moreover, war is NOT good for the economy of country such as Iran that does not posses a great industrial base. It will only serve as a drain for hard currency. The government and the people of Iran understand these points well.

    Furthermore, the build-up of Iranian troops to 200,000 was not a purely belligerent move. It serves as a show of force against the Taliban. Nonetheless, the fall of Bamian as the Afghan Shi'ite's last stronghold changes things considerably. Still, the best blow that Iran could inflict on the Taliban is to use the troops to shut down the Taliban's economic life-line: heroin trafficking. After all, there is little harm an organized army can do to a country like Afghanistan by using grenades and rockets. What would they blow up anyway? None of this, fortunately, is news to the decision-makers in Tehran.

    At present, it appears that Khatami is trying hard to make the matter an international one. His visit to the United Nations next week will hopefully provide the opportunity to do so. Other forces within Iran have also been rather cautious with their rhetoric given the magnitude of the situation at hand.

    War is a very emotional and hard felt issue for both Iranians and Afghans. We know just how ugly it is. We need to use the power of emotion that wakes us up in cold sweat in the middle of the night as a driving force. But it will take a lot more to get us out of this mess. We need to collectively think of solutions and make sure these ideas are heard in the right places. Let's hope for the best, but prepare for the worse.


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