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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Iran's President Foresees 'Long Warfare' Next Door

Diplomacy: Though his nation backs the Afghan opposition, Mohammad Khatami says ousting the Taliban will only lead to lengthy guerrilla conflict.

November 13, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Iran's President Mohammad Khatami warned Monday that toppling the Taliban from power would probably not end the fighting--or the fundamentalist regime's presence--in Afghanistan.

"Even if the Taliban is ousted, . . . I'm sorry to say, my feeling is that Afghanistan will enter into a period of long warfare," he told a small group of reporters at a breakfast meeting.

The Taliban would almost surely launch a guerrilla war from the mountains and caves of Afghanistan, targeting opposition forces, a new government and any foreign presence deployed to help return order to the war-ravaged country, he said.

Iran is particularly sensitive about the conflict because it has the longest border with Afghanistan after Pakistan's. Iran's position on Afghan issues is considered pivotal to a peaceful resolution, in part because, along with Russia and India, it has been among the three largest backers of the opposition Northern Alliance.

Khatami, who for years has warned the West about the dangers of the Taliban, also cautioned the United States against sending ground troops to Afghanistan, predicting that they would worsen U.S. problems in the Islamic world.

"If America enters Afghanistan and stays on, it places itself in a real quagmire," he said.

Iran came close to open conflict with the Taliban after eight diplomats and an Iranian journalist were killed by the Afghan regime in 1998.

Khatami also said U.S. airstrikes should stop altogether, and not only during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins once a new moon is sighted later this week. He urged the United States instead to develop a political strategy to oust the Taliban and isolate Saudi militant Osama bin Laden.

Since he arrived in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly just hours after President Bush on Saturday, the Iranian president has been pushing hard for an alternative approach to fighting terrorism.

In his speech, he questioned resorting to "violence and revenge" with the "most destructive modern weapons" as an effective long-term response. He urged the United Nations, rather than the United States, to coordinate a single global strategy that would tap the "participation and cooperation of all members of the human community."

On Monday, he also told reporters that the U.S. military campaign was on the verge of backfiring in terms of public opinion. He warned that the war to fight terrorism "might actually spread terrorism" because of images of women and children being killed by bombs.

Khatami's remarks came shortly before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met and shook hands with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who had expressed official Iranian condolences for the Sept. 11 attacks. It was the first public handshake between U.S. and Iranian Cabinet officials since the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran and the seizure of 52 American hostages for 444 days.

Powell and Kharrazi were among top officials from Afghanistan's six neighbors plus the United States and Russia assembled at the U.N. on Monday to discuss post-Taliban rule. Khatami said Washington and Tehran have been in contact in recent weeks through international bodies as well as through their interest sections, which perform diplomatic duties in the absence of formal relations.

The Iranian leader, who has twice won landslide election victories campaigning for democratic reforms, said Iran is in agreement with the United States, Russia and the front-line states that the only solution for Afghanistan is a democratic government that embraces all ethnic groups. But he said the time is "not yet ripe" for elections because of the country's destruction and pervasive poverty.

In the meantime, he said, a transition government should be installed to prevent the spread of violence among the disparate ethnic, religious and tribal factions.

On relations with the United States, Khatami said the two countries might be at "the beginning of a new and positive process if the Bush administration follows with practical steps." He specifically urged the United States to rethink its opposition to letting a proposed Central Asia oil pipeline run through Iran.

Although he expressed pessimism about an imminent breakthrough, he said he hoped to see "practical change in the behavior of the United States toward Iran, so that this mistrust can go away."

In his U.N. address, Khatami--whose country is on the State Department's list of seven state sponsors of terrorism--said that since Sept. 11, nations around the world "walk hand in hand" with America.

On Monday, the Iranian leader added that there are "no barriers" now to cultural or economic ties with the United States.

"It's only the United States that is preventing these exchanges, especially economic ties," he said. Iran had signed a deal with Conoco to develop offshore oil and gas fields, but Washington forced them to scuttle the project.

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