BACKGROUND: In July 2002, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Administration decided to drop efforts to seek dialogue with reformist forces in Tehran, and instead, to look for democratic changes in Iran. Intense public debate in the United States, and specifically an important hearing by the Senate's International Relations Committee on a broad scope of issues related to imminent military action against Iraq, provided insight to the criteria, as well as the motives, behind the dominant factors that are likely to determine US foreign policy in the coming years. The primary concerns for U.S. national security, as was indicated by many high-ranking officials of both current and past Administrations, will be: international terrorism, supporters of terrorism, or any forms of links with terrorist organizations and intentions of undemocratic regimes to develop and seek access to weapons of mass destruction and missile technology. Former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. European Command, General Wesley Clark, in a CNN interview said that Iraq is the first step in a broad war against terrorism and the proliferation of WMD. He directly mentioned Iran as a possible next target, unless it comes to terms with the international community. In response, the reformist president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, described the escalation of U.S. rhetoric against Iraq as an "unprecedented threat to regional security by misuse of the status of world superpower". These remarks were followed by more tough criticism of U.S. intentions toward Iraq as well as American strategy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iranian defense minister Admiral Ali Shamkani reiterated that "the Iranian people will defend the motherland and the Islamic revolution".
IMPLICATIONS: Unlikely previous stages of "war of words" between the United States and Iran, this time matters appear to be more serious both given the stakes in the dispute and the consequences for regional security. The considerations that may follow from this risk forcing Tehran to change its Afghan policy. With Washington walking on the path of war against Iraq, the possibility of a long-term American military presence on Iraqi soil clearly worries the Iranian regime. Moreover, the Interim Administration of Afghanistan, led by Hamid Karzai, is considered by Iran as an American puppet. "America will be our neighbor on the East at least for the coming eighteen months", wrote the leading conservative newspaper "Jumhuri Eslami". The United States, meanwhile, repeatedly blamed "the non-elected part of the Iranian leadership with meddling in Afghanistan's internal affairs", in the words of Zalmay Khalilzad, special adviser to the President on Afghanistan. He further stated that Iran seeks to strengthen its influence in western Afghanistan and has been helping the regional warlord in Herat, Islamil Khan, to secure his grip for autonomous power at the expense of the central authorities in Kabul. However, some reports indicate that Tehran has been much active in furthering its interests in Afghanistan and laying the ground conditions for a possible standoff with United States. Congress Research Service Middle East Expert Kenneth Katzman writes that Iran bought some 16 "Stinger" anti-aircraft missiles from its allies in Afghanistan, and possibly transferred some of them to the pro-Iranian terrorist organization "Hizbullah" in Lebanon. According to recent information from Afghanistan, in April this year, several Iranian operatives belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were captured in Kandahar province by local warlord Gul Aga Sherzai. At the end, Iran managed to buy back their military personnel for money. Some field reports by well known experts have pointed out that Ismail Khan's troops have new weapons and uniforms of Iranian origin. Tehran is also host to 1.2 million Afghan refugees, who were used by the Iranians as a tool in dealing with the Taliban in the past. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Jihadi commander with a strong anti-American agenda, had his headquarters in Tehran until last spring, and was forced to leave Tehran only after strong U.S. pressure. As some reports indicate, Hekmatyar appears to be plotting against the Karzai interim government in Kabul. Iran has recently been forcing the return of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan, though fully aware that the Interim government is not able to cope with the scale of the task. Khatami's visit to Afghanistan in mid-August 2002, according to some experts, aims at making a final assessment of the new Interim Administration in Kabul: is this government totally a "non-repairable American puppet" or could Tehran hope for some accommodation with it through relevant changes in its policy and structure?. Tough rhetoric by Khatami on U.S. policy in the region indicates that Iran has opted to challenge the U.S. in whatever form and place in order to reduce its own vulnerability. Unofficially, Iranian hard-liners were also very supportive to the airing as well as to the substance of radiobroadcasts and statements by leaders of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) made in Radio Mashhad, a radio station from the eastern Iranian Khorasan province.
CONCLUSION: The Escalation of "war of words" between Washington and Tehran in the light of Washington stepping up its military preparations against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a clear-cut American agenda against international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, together with the geographical closing in of American troops around Iran through the establishment of bases in Afghanistan and Central Asian republics may force Tehran to change its policy toward Afghanistan from the current "limited constructive engagement" to a "containment of the U.S." in all directions, including in Afghanistan. A "Containment policy" may include both stepping up relevant activity of Tehran and its loyalists to create possible headaches for America in the vicinity of Afghanistan's Iranian borders. Iran will certainly increase its support both for terrorist organizations like Hizbullah and Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine, as well as support and encourage the uncooperative stance of the increasingly xenophobic president of Turkmenistan, Mr. Niyazov, who so far has been rebuffing any attempts by the U.S. to find a common ground for joint actions against terrorism in Afghanistan, as the U.S. has with other regional states like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran also steps up its efforts to finish the construction of the Busher Nuclear power plant, which apparently will be used as a tool of deterrence against a U.S. military operation.
AUTHOR'S BIO: James Purcell Smith is an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs based in New York.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.