- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2001

Iran said yesterday that it would "confront" any U.S. warplanes that fly over its territory as part of any military strike against neighboring Afghanistan, one more illustration of Tehran's conflicted response to last month's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Defense Minister Adm. Ali Shamkhani, speaking to reporters in Tehran on the eve of a five-day visit to Russia, gave the most explicit notice to date that Iran will not take part in any U.S.-led retaliatory strike against Afghanistan, which the Bush administration accuses of harboring the prime suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Asked what would happen if U.S. planes ventured over Iranian airspace, Adm. Shamkhani warned that "mistakes cannot be repeated."
"If it is repeated, it means it is planned and we will confront them, we will defend our airspace," the defense minister said.
The U.S. effort to assemble a global anti-terrorism coalition has only intensified the deep rifts within the Iranian government between centrists supporting President Mohammed Khatami and conservative hard-liners who look to supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.
Sharing a 560-mile border with Afghanistan and harboring some 1.5 million Afghan refugees within its borders, Iran's support or neutrality in any U.S. military response could prove critical.
But Tehran has sent out mixed signals almost since the day of the attack, reflecting deep suspicions in Iran both of the United States and of the fundamentalist Taliban regime that rules Afghanistan.
"There are clearly two schools of thought at war here about how to respond," said Jonathan Kessler, executive editor of the bimonthly Middle East Insight, which tracks developments in the region.
"The moderates clearly saw the terrorist strikes as an opportunity in U.S.-Iranian relations, while others saw them as a threat," he said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell welcomed President Khatami's quick condemnation of the attacks.
A similar message of condolence from the mayor of Tehran to New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is believed to be the first direct communication between public officials of the two countries since diplomatic ties were severed following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the 1979 revolution.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw traveled to Tehran last week to discuss the crisis the first visit by a British foreign minister to Iran since the revolution.
And analysts note that Iran and the United States share a surprising number of interests in the struggle.
Iran's Shi'ite Muslim religious leadership has long been hostile to the Sunni Taliban regime and to Osama bin Laden, the Afghanistan-based Saudi financier identified by U.S. officials as their prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Tehran fears that instability in Afghanistan could produce both a flood of new refugees across the border and a power vacuum that regional rivals such as Pakistan and Russia could exploit.
Iran has also long supported the Northern Alliance, a coalition of armed Afghan opposition groups that could play a major role in American operations against either the Taliban or the bin Laden network.
Adm. Shamkhani yesterday confirmed for the first time that Iran has supplied the Northern Alliance with weapons and logistical support in the fight against the Taliban.
Balanced against those factors are a still-deep distrust of the United States, resentment against economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by Washington, and fears that the Bush administration will broaden the anti-terrorism campaign to target armed groups Tehran has long backed in the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over the weekend, warned the United States against any military action that could inflame public opinion across the Arab world.
"The situation is extremely sensitive and any wrong move could lead to a clash of civilizations," he said.
Ayatollah Khamanei issued a blistering attack on the United States Thursday in definitively ruling out any Iranian military role in a U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan or any other Muslim nation, calling for the United Nations to take the lead in the terrorism fight.
But even the hard-liners have been studiously vague about what level of U.N. approval they would require before military action was taken.
After a hesitant early reaction, Tehran has engaged in a flurry of recent diplomacy, seeking a united Arab response in advance of the Oct. 10 summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Qatar.

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