In the initial reaction to the events of September 11, it seemed that a remarkable window of opportunity had opened for a change in Iran'srelationship with the US. The formulaic chant of “Death to America” was silenced for the first time in two decades and a spontaneous groundswellof sympathy for the victims showed itself in candle-light vigils and the observance of a moment of silence by 10,000 spectators at a sportsevent.
The first official contact between Iran and the U.S. since the Islamic revolution came in the form of a message of condolence from Tehran's mayor to his New York counterpart, and President Khatami spoke quickly to condemn the terrorist attacks and “express his deep sorrow and sympathy with the American nation.” When the U.S. waived sanctions on Pakistan in exchange for cooperation against the Taliban, the precedent raised hopes for many Iranians.
Iran has many good reasons to support the US against the Taliban. Three years ago, the murder by the Taliban of nine Iranian diplomats brought the two nations to the brink of war, with Iranians troops moved to the Afghan border. That border has been troubled for a long time.Even before the present crisis, Iran had absorbed 1.4 million Afghan refugees over the last decade with minimal financial support from the international community.
Recently Iran's economic problems and staggering unemployment led to attempts to repatriate Afghan refugees, with appalling human consequences. Likewise, the flow of opium smuggled from Afghanistan to finance Taliban operations is creating social problems on an unprecedented scale in Iran.
The particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism espoused by the Taliban and by Osama bin Laden is alien to Shi'ite Iranians, and the ethnic divisions within Afghanistan also align Iran with the 50% of Afghans whoshare their Persian language and against the Taliban who are Pashtun (the largest minority, but still a minority). This has translated into Iranian support for the Afghan opposition, the Northern Alliance, in the form of mediation for unity among the various factions of the alliance,and millions of dollars of arms. Obviously, Iran has significant access to intelligence on Afghanistan.
But Iran's window of opportunity for an alliance with the U.S. appeared to close last week with the statement from supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei that Iran would not “provide any help to America or its allies in their attack” against Afghanistan. The reversal is in part a reflection of the current schizophrenic state of Iranian politics, where a democratic parliament and reform-minded president elected by massive popular support are kept in check by conservatives in key positions ofpower.
It's also a reflection of Iran's wariness to jump into another war. Eight years of war with Iraq, with a million casualties on their side alone, have left Iranians war-weary. Nor have they forgotten America's support for Saddam Hossein in that war, even though we may have erased it from memory. If Bush's war on terrorism extends to Iraq, as is all too likely, Iran falls just as naturally on America's side against its enemy to the west as it does against the Taliban.
But sharing common enemies is not enough to create an alliance, given the history of mistrust. Bush's black and white approach to building a coalition — “if you're not for us, you're against us” — paints over the complexities of U.S. involvement in the region till now, and makes it hard to capitalize on the goodwill and resources that Iran has to offer.
Khamenei answered: “We are not with you. At the same time, we are not with terrorists.” He affirmed Iran's willlingness to cooperate with an anti-terrorist coalition provided that it is led by the UN. The U.S., he said, is not qualified to lead such a coalition. The U.S. can equally question Iran's qualifications to pass such a judgment, with its linkage to Palestinian terrorist groups. Iran would respond that one country's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, but would agree that what happened on September 11 is beyond any justification.
If there is a glimmer of hope for an improved relationship with Iran, it is indicated by the careful wording of Bush's condemnation of nations that “continue to suppport terrorism”. That “continue” implies thatpast offences may be overlooked if a commitment to the coalition against terrorism is forthcoming. The question remains whether cooperation mediated through the UN would be enough to satisfy the U.S.
Iran isn't waiting for an answer, but has been proactive in efforts to recruit Arab and Islamic countries for a UN-led coalition. Tehran also welcomed British foreign minister Jack Straw for talks on the crisis, the highest level contact the two nations have had since the Iranian revolution. Although historically Iranians have harbored even more mistrust for the British than they have for the U.S., Britain and Iran have recently restored diplomatic ties.
Beyond the practical expedience of cooperation for both sides, a thaw in relations now between the U.S. and Iran would be a strong gesture of support for Iran's beleaguered moderates. One can only hope that the US will consider the longer future and concern itself more with supporting democratic movements in the region, which in the long term will create an environment where terrorism cannot thrive, than with settling old scores and feeding the cycle of violence.