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Iran holds foes in complex balance

Tehran is finding new ways to assert itself in Mideast conflicts.

August 14, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

tehran -- They do the jobs that few Iranians would consider. For $11 a day, the Afghans mend shoes, haul bricks, dig drainage channels, push giant wheelbarrows of scavenged debris through treacherous ribbons of cars.

It has been this way since the various wars in Afghanistan sent an estimated 2 million refugees flooding into neighboring Iran. Since April, however, more than 160,000 Afghans have been rounded up and sent home.

Iran plans to expel up to 1 million in what it asserts is an effort to cut down on illegal immigrants and open up new jobs for Iranians. But Afghanistan warns that the exodus could jeopardize its fragile new stability, and for the U.S. and others, the move by Tehran offers an unsettling hint of Iranian mischief-making in the region.

One of the givens of the Middle East's dense diplomacy is Shiite Iran's enduring hostility toward the Taliban, the radical Sunni movement whose fall from power in 2001 was welcomed nowhere as much as in Tehran.

Yet the growing international pressure aimed at Iran's nuclear program appears to have prompted a more complex new strategy for Iran in Afghanistan, interviews with Iranian analysts here suggest. Iran still supports the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, they say, but the Islamic Republic is also not averse to asserting itself in a conflict that Washington once thought was over.

"It is better for Iran if America is entangled in Afghanistan with the Taliban," said Abulfazl Amooei, a political analyst for the Hamshahri diplomatic magazine, which closely reflects the views of Iran's Islamic hard-liners. "Because as soon as the U.S. has no problem in Afghanistan, it can turn to the next area in the Middle East. It can come to Iran and say, 'I am in your neighborhood, and I will attack you if you do not suspend your nuclear enrichment activities.' "

Iran appears to be mounting a high-profile anti-U.S. publicity campaign to the west in Iraq and neighboring Sunni nations. At the same time, it is working below the radar to keep its options open to the east, in Afghanistan.

For years, Iran's power in the Middle East was held in check through a combination of U.S. sanctions and a long war in the 1980s with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, whose regime received aid from the United States and Sunni Arab nations that feared the growing influence of the Islamic Republic and the potential expansion of its hard-line theological revolution.

But the U.S.-led military ouster of Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan during the Bush administration opened a new chapter for Tehran. Now Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has forged cordial relationships with Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government and with Karzai. Last week, the Afghan president rebuffed President Bush's attempts to characterize Iran as a destabilizing force in the region, contending in an earlier interview with CNN that Iran had been "a helper" on such issues as fighting terrorism and narcotics.

Just as worrying for Sunni Arab governments in the Middle East, Ahmadinejad's tough talk against the U.S. and Israel has won Iran unexpected and growing popularity in the Sunni Muslim world. Tehran now sees itself poised to become the dominant power broker in the Mideast and deeper into Asia.

The Bush administration has charged that Iran is supplying weapons to anti-American fighters in Iraq. And recently, U.S. and British officials disclosed that they had intercepted Iranian-made weapons in Afghanistan, bound for the Taliban. The Iranian government has vehemently denied any connection, and the Afghan government has also expressed doubts. But if such shipments are eventually traced to the Iranian government, this would represent a worrying new development for the U.S. and others.

For its part, Iran is furious at America's recent $20-billion weapons package initialed with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.

Analysts say that Tehran, with its latest maneuvering, appears to be declaring: Backing us into a corner could result in unforeseen misfortunes for the U.S. -- in Iraq, in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories and also in Afghanistan.

"All Muslim nations, you who are buying weapons from Washington, those who have been deceived by Washington, listen to the words of God," Ayatollah Emami Kashani said at Friday prayers in Tehran early this month. "Don't accept leadership from outside. Don't expose your private parts. . . . The Zionists and the Americans want to make you weak, humiliated and miserable."

Iran's strategy in Afghanistan appears aimed at ensuring that Karzai's government remains in power while Tehran loses no sleep if his opponents keep the U.S. and Britain bogged down in combat there, interviews with analysts and government officials in Tehran suggest.

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