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Privately, Iran blames bin Laden

By John Ward Anderson Washington Post

TEHRAN, Iran - In newspapers, influential Friday prayer sermons and official pronouncements, Iranians are treated to a variety of theories about who committed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States: radical American-bred militia groups, Israeli intelligence agents, disaffected former U.S. military pilots - anybody, it seems, but Osama bin Laden.

Privately, the government has a different view. Last week, high-ranking officials in the administration of President Mohammad Khatami summoned a group of Western diplomats and told them Iran had concluded that bin Laden was behind the attacks.

"They said they accept the right to punish people responsible for a crime, and they were very clear: They are sure bin Laden was responsible," said a senior Western diplomat familiar with the meeting. "They will never say that openly. They will continue asking for proof and clear evidence, but they said . . . the responsibility of bin Laden is certain."

The diplomats were told that while Iran would likely publicly condemn any U.S. attack on Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban militia is believed to be harboring bin Laden and his associates, officials privately hoped a U.S. response would be confined to well-defined military objectives.

"They said the Taliban and bin Laden are the same, don't try to make a distinction. It's a war against extremism," a diplomat said. "They said that if you fail, they will be heroes and it will be even worse than before, so don't leave the job unfinished like you did in Iraq."

Analysts said the unfolding terrorism crisis offers Iran a chance to showcase its growing self-assurance in foreign affairs since Khatami ended nearly two decades of international isolation and repaired Iran's relations with Islamic and European countries.

Once an outcast even among its Islamic neighbors, Iran has found a new, more moderate voice on international affairs that carries influence in the Islamic world, analysts said. That is especially so in the current crisis, which comes at a time of intense anger among Muslims at the pro-Israel policies of the United States.

In this regard, where Iran comes down on the matter of responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks and how it responds to any U.S. retaliation against bin Laden and his radical Islamic network could be a key factor in U.S. efforts to include Muslim countries in an international coalition against terrorism.

"Iran has a big role, and they are being listened to," said a Western diplomat in Tehran.

"Iran says things more vociferously and puts its money where its mouth is about Israel and the occupied territories," he said. "They do play a role in voicing the opinion of the Islamic world because they can get away with it more than, say, Egypt," which has to guard its comments because of its close relations with the United States.

The anti-terrorist campaign plays to a host of Iran's interests, highlighting it as a champion of Islam, opponent of the United States, protector of regional independence and national sovereignty, and foot soldier against Zionism.

But at the same time, the crisis provides a chance for Iran to reach out to the West and change its image as an irresponsible sponsor of terrorism, a charge leveled often by U.S. officials.

And critically important, the entire episode could end up allowing Iran to get rid of a neighboring enemy - the Taliban - without dirtying its own hands.

The Iranian leadership - not only Khatami and other elected reformers, but also religious conservatives in powerful appointed positions - is attempting to rally other countries behind a unified Islamic stance on terrorism. That will be a key topic at a special meeting early this week in Qatar of foreign ministers from the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference. Khatami was the first head of state to call for such a meeting.

At this juncture, openly backing the U.S. contention that bin Laden was responsible would be an extraordinary and unlikely step for Iran.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 07, 2001

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