- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

TEHRAN Behind the surprisingly muted criticism of the U.S. air strikes, officials betray a quiet satisfaction in Iran, where planners are already discussing the makeup of a post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, this week termed the attacks "unacceptable to Iran" and protested the loss of life among Afghanistan's civilian population. His comments followed a rhetorical blast from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said last week that Iran does not consider the United States "competent and sincere [enough] to lead any global campaign against terrorism."
Read between the lines, however, a different picture emerges. Iran's official pronouncements were still couched in the language of its Islamic revolution, but analysts searched in vain for the vitriol that once featured prominently in every headline speech.
"There's still a bit of a fuss, of course," said a European diplomat in Tehran. "What struck me, though, was how muted the fuss was this time."
It is no surprise that Iran rejected President Bush's "for or against us" ultimatum it has long seen itself as a role model for nonaligned countries. Indeed, since the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran has pursued a vigorous diplomatic drive aimed at averting military action in Afghanistan. Most public comment, too, has been remarkably moderate in tone.
"The campaign against terror can take different forms," Mr. Kharrazi said this week. "We don't accept military action. The best way to deal with terror is to identify its roots and dry out those roots."
Unlike other Muslim countries, there was little sign of protest on the streets of Tehran after the initial air strikes on Afghanistan. It was business as usual for the moneychangers on Ferdowsi Street, where noisy demonstrators are often bused in to protest outside the British and German embassies. In cafes and tea shops around the capital, Iranians were watching events unfold on television, but few were interested in protest.
"Iranians think Osama is a terrorist and that the Taliban were produced by the United States," said Farideh Dabiri, an Iranian woman sipping tea in Ferdowsi Street cafe. "We believe both projects backfired on the U.S."
In fact, behind the public rhetoric, officials express a quiet satisfaction. Iran's planners are already discussing the makeup of a post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Their views match closely with those of the United States, which advocates a transitional government led by Afghanistan's deposed king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, in partnership with the opposition Northern Alliance.
"Iran can support an alliance between the Northern Alliance and Zahir Shah," said Saed Leylaz, a political analyst. "For us, Zahir Shah is much better than the Taliban."
Iran, which directs covert military and logistical support to the embattled Northern Alliance, also backs a transitional government that would give way to what one Foreign Ministry official has described as "a broad-based government set up under U.N. auspices."
In part, Iran's neutrality is fueled by its intense dislike of the Taliban. There is no love lost between Iran's Shi'ite clerics and the hard-line Sunni Taliban leadership.
Iranian leaders view the Taliban as a creation of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) that has elevated the Sunni Pashtun tribes over Iran's natural allies, the Shi'ite Hazara tribe, which populate central Bamian province.
In addition, Iran has borne the economic cost of hosting some 2.4 million Afghan refugees with little financial assistance from the outside world..
Moreover, Iran still nurses a grievance over the murder of nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1999 when Taliban forces rolled into the city. And Iran has suffered an upsurge in drug trafficking since gangs based in Afghanistan won carte blanche from Taliban's leaders in the late 1990s.

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