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Sunday, 16 September, 2001, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
Iran weighs up its options
Burning the US flag
Anti-American sentiment has been rife since 1979
By BBC Tehran correspondent Jim Muir

As the Americans ponder their response to the New York and Washington attacks, few countries are watching the situation more closely than Afghanistan's immediate neighbour, Iran.


In the Middle East, the normal rule is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But in this case, that clearly does not apply

For the Iranians, whose relations with Washington have been ruptured since shortly after the Islamic revolution in 1979, it is a situation which is clearly pregnant with both dangers and opportunities.

Some quarters in Washington have suggested drawing Iran into the anti-terrorist coalition, while others have suggested it should be a target for reprisals.

Iran finds itself caught in an uneasy position.

It has no relations with Washington and it is on the US State Department's list of countries which back terrorism.

It openly sympathises with, and supports, groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Washington has labelled "terrorist".

Only three months ago, the US Attorney General accused unnamed senior Iranian officials of involvement in the truck bomb attack on an American military dormitory in Saudi Arabia in 1996, in which 19 US servicemen were killed.

Hostile to Taleban

At the same time, Iran's relations are hardly any better with its neighbour Afghanistan, whose Taleban rulers and their guest Osama Bin Laden are top of the list of potential targets for American reprisals.

Three years ago, Iran nearly went to war with Afghanistan, after 10 Iranian diplomats were killed when the Taleban overran Mazar-i-Sherif.

Taleban fighters
Iran does not recognise the Taleban regime
The Taleban are Sunni Muslims, the Iranian Islamic regime is Shia.

Iran backs the Afghan opposition alliance which stands against the Taleban.

In the Middle East, the normal rule is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But in this case, that clearly does not apply.

So far, Iran's hostility to the Taleban certainly has not inspired it to make common cause with the Americans.

In fact, historically, Tehran believes the Americans helped create the Taleban in the first place.

Equally, shared hostility to Washington has not pushed the Iranians and the Taleban to overcome their bitter differences.

The question is, whether this time, Iran can stand on the touchlines and retain a kind of hostile neutrality, as it did when the US-led coalition struck another major neighbour, Iraq, 10 years ago.

An opportunity?

So far, the Americans have made it clear there can be no middle ground: you are either with the new crusade against terrorism, or against it.

If it comes to a major operation against Afghanistan, Iran's cooperation could be very useful, and Tehran could come under strong pressure to help in one way or another.

President Khatami
President Khatami is seen as a moderate by the West
There is clearly an opportunity for Iran to take a big step forward in its relations with Washington - and possibly, big penalties if it does not.

But it is not a simple step for Tehran to take, given mutual historical grievances, and the divided nature of the Iranian regime.

So far, western diplomats are impressed by the Iranian response to the terrorist attacks on the US: they have been condemned by both sides of the system.

But going from there to active cooperation with an American-led coalition is obviously something else.

Whatever President Khatami and the reformists might want, such a move would need the full support of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

He has so far remained silent on the affair.

His speeches are normally full of hostility to the US. He regards it as Iran's biggest enemy, bent on world domination and undermining the Islamic system by sponsoring a corrosive cultural invasion.

So it is hard to imagine that Iran could simply forget the past and hop on the American bandwagon without conditions.

Inducements

But western diplomats here do not rule out a positive shift in relations between the two countries - if the Americans and their allies can come up with some kind of reciprocal inducements.

One element, for example, could be to include the violent Iranian opposition faction, the Mujahideen Khalq Organisation, as a target in the drive against terrorism.

Hezbollah fighter
Iran is the main backer of Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon
For Iran, there may also be risks involved in simply trying to sit it out.

A lot depends on how far the Americans decide to go.

If, for example, they resolved to take out the Taleban altogether, Iran might risk watching the establishment of what could be another hostile regime on its borders.

If it were involved, it could help influence and be part of the outcome.

Despite many attempts at a thaw, Iran's relations with the US have remained stubbornly frozen for years.

The fallout from the extraordinary events of the past week, might just generate enough heat to begin the melting process.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jim Muir
"Khamenei left no doubt about his strong condemnation of the outrages in New York and Washington"
See also:

10 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iran and EU hold historic talks
08 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iran 'pursuing nuclear programme'
12 Apr 01 | South Asia
Iran favours strong regional ties
11 Jan 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Britain courts pariah nations
11 Jan 00 | Media reports
Iranian media cautiously optimistic
22 Oct 00 | Middle East
Tehran struck by mortar attacks
29 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
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