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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Warns Iran Against Afghan Meddling, Aiding Terrorists

January 11, 2002|EDWIN CHEN and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Bush told Iran on Thursday that it faces serious retribution from the United States if it tries to destabilize the new interim government in Afghanistan or provides a haven for fleeing terrorists.

After months of tentative, post-Sept. 11 cooperation, Bush's sharp words raised questions about the future of what many U.S. officials had hoped was a budding relationship between the two countries.

Bush commented amid intelligence reports that some Osama bin Laden loyalists had crossed over Afghanistan's 600-mile border with Iran. U.S. officials also have become concerned about attempts by Iran to extend its political and military influence into western Afghanistan.

Bush made it clear that the U.S. is prepared to respond with more than rhetoric. He said that if Iranian officials "in any way, shape or form try to destabilize the [Afghan] government," the United States and its anti-Taliban allies will "deal with them . . . in diplomatic ways--initially."

"Iran must be a contributor in the war against terror," the president said. "Our nation and our fight against terror will uphold the doctrine: Either you're with us or against us."

An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity conceded that the United States is unclear on exactly what role the government in Tehran may be playing.

But Bush's comments also came at a time when Iran is being linked to a boat loaded with 50 tons of weapons seized by Israel in the Red Sea on Jan. 3. U.S. officials believe the arms were bound for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In a briefing for U.S. officials in Washington on Wednesday, a top Israeli security official charged that senior Iranian government officials were directly involved in providing the arms.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Iran cooperated with the U.S. in its war on terrorism. It pledged, for instance, to help with search-and-rescue missions if pilots were lost.

Iranian diplomats also backed U.S. and U.N. efforts to build an alternative regime in Kabul.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have expressed hope that the Afghan crisis might provide common ground for the U.S. and Iran to improve relations, and Bush suggested as much Thursday.

"We had some positive signals early in this war from the Iranians. We would hope that they would continue to be a positive force in helping us bring people to justice," he said.

"We would hope, for example, they wouldn't allow Al Qaeda murderers to hide in their country," Bush said. "We would hope that if . . . someone tries to flee into Iran, that they would hand them over to us."

U.S. analysts doubt that the government of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is knowingly harboring either Taliban or Al Qaeda troops. Iran was one of three main backers--with India and Russia--of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance during its five-year campaign against the Taliban.

"It's unlikely that Iran would do anything to help the Taliban, given the animosity before Sept. 11," said Shaul Bakhash, author of "The Reign of the Ayatollahs" and an expert on Iran at George Mason University in Virginia.

"Clearly, Iran has very legitimate reasons for a presence or interest there with the new government," Bakhash said. "It has a long border, and any instability in Afghanistan affects Iranian interests." There's also a huge Afghan refugee population, which Iran would like to see go home."

The fact that Afghanistan has a Shiite Muslim minority also creates a bond between the two countries. Iran, an overwhelmingly Shiite country, feels an obligation to look after the interests of Afghanistan's Shiites, who were often victimized by the Sunni Muslim Taliban. The new leadership in Kabul also is predominantly Sunni.

Experts say that for all of Iran's initial support of the U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan, Tehran also has reasons for being leery.

"Iran is concerned about an American military presence in Afghanistan, right on its borders . . . plus the already sizable U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and increasingly in Central Asia," said Bakhash. "It feeds Iranian fears of being encircled."

The United States has tried to balance the concerns of all of Afghanistan's six neighbors and prevent any one of them from wielding a dominant influence over the new government in Kabul.

"We're watching Afghanistan and outside influences, which include Iran," the administration official said. "There's a history of very negative things happening in Afghanistan because of foreign influence."

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