Iran said to agree to help US with rescues : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

October 16, 2001

Iran Said to Agree to Help U.S. With Rescues


WASHINGTON, Oct. 15 In an important sign of growing cooperation with the United States in its war against Afghanistan, Iran has sent a secret message to the Bush administration agreeing to rescue any American military personnel in distress in its territory, American and Iranian officials said today.

The Iranian message was sent on Oct. 8, just hours after the United States launched its first military strikes against Afghan targets, the officials said. It was a response to a confidential message from the Bush administration the day before assuring Iran that the United States would respect its territorial integrity, including its airspace.

The messages, delivered through the Swiss government, reflect what appears to be a significant shift in Iranian-American relations since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The Bush administration has set aside for now its criticism of Iran for supporting Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militant group based in Lebanon, and the Palestinian group Hamas. It did not include either group on two lists of terrorist groups and individuals whose assets have been frozen because of the attacks.

In its message, the Bush administration requested that Iran go to the aid of any American who might be shot down or forced to land in Iranian territory, or who escaped into Iran, the officials said.

The Swiss government officially represents United States-Iranian interests in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Iranian and American messages are the latest and most important of several to pass between the two countries through the Swiss channel in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and could have political ramifications extending far beyond the fate of American military personnel.

But the diplomatic maneuvering is extremely delicate. Iran is still listed by the State Department as the world's most active state supporter of terrorism, largely because of its support for Hezbollah and for the Palestinian groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The assets of those groups are frozen under previous executive orders that appear to be less sweeping than the two most recent orders.

Nevertheless, the signs of movement are notable. The administration has, for the first time, asked a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit brought against Iran by the 52 Americans who were held hostage for 444 days beginning in 1979 and many of their relatives, who are seeking damages from the Tehran government.

The litigation was brought last year. Because Iran did not contest the suit, saying it did not accept that United States courts had jurisdiction, the hostages and their relatives won the case by default in August. But representatives of the Justice Department and the State Department appeared in court today just as the case was to go to trial to determine how much Iran owed in damages to the 137 people who brought the lawsuit.

Asked by the judge why it had taken so long for the government to intervene, James J. Gilligan, a Justice Department lawyer, said his agency had not learned of the lawsuit from the State Department until last month. But William Coffield, one of the lawyers representing the former hostages and their relatives, said in an interview that it appeared that the administration was trying to send a friendly signal to Iran. "They're clearly carrying water for Iran," he said.

In recent weeks Iran and the United States have engaged in what one senior administration official calls a ballet, in which both sides are taking tentative steps to explore where their national security interests intersect, in this crisis and beyond.

Weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration opened a full-scale interagency review of American policy toward Iran. The State Department, with its policy planning director, Richard N. Haass, taking the lead, has tried to accelerate the review since the attacks, administration officials said.

Among the issues under discussion are how much Iran needs to build its conventional defensive military strength and whether American economic sanctions against Iran should be sustained, administration officials said. There is a growing consensus in the administration that the Clinton administration policy of "dual containment," which isolated and punished both Iran and Iraq, was unwise and that the United States could no longer have both as enemies.

"How did it happen that we are on the opposite side of both Iran and Iraq?" Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked a journalist at a black-tie dinner three days before the attacks. "It makes no sense." In a related diplomatic development, American and Iranian officials met face to face on Oct. 7 in an obscure United Nations-sponsored forum in Geneva for the second time since the Sept. 11 attacks to discuss the shape of a future Afghan government, American and Iranian officials said. They added that the talks had focused on ways to broaden the base of the future Afghan government.

The United States, through the United Nations World Food Program, is shipping food aid overland from Iran to Afghanistan. A first consignment of 110 tons of wheat was delivered to Herat, Afghanistan, without difficulty on Wednesday. In a briefing last week, Andrew Natsios, the head of the United States Agency for International Development, called Iran's cooperation on the relief front excellent.

He said Iran was making possible the relocation of a number of private relief organizations into Iran from the Pakistan border area. Iran already has about 1.5 million Afghan refugees on its territory, Mr. Natsios said, and does not want "large-scale population movements and millions of refugees."

Iran's offer to help American military personnel is a signal that Iran does not intend to use the United States military campaign against terrorism as a pretext to target American interests in the region, officials from both countries said. In its war in Afghanistan, the United States needs at least the tacit support of Iran, which shares a 560- mile border with Afghanistan and supplies weapons and logistical and financial support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

Iran's stance is reminiscent of the situation after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, when Iran refrained from meddling with the United States-led coalition to expel Iraq. In the Persian Gulf war of 1991, Iran turned a blind eye to the Pentagon's violation of airspace along its western border with Iraq, the best route for American warplanes to fire missiles over Baghdad. During that conflict Iran also gave the United States a secret assurance that it would go to the aid of Americans in combat against Iraq.

But Iran for years has refused to open a broad, official political dialogue with the United States, and a number of different voices are coming from Iran's leadership. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, condemned the military strikes on Afghanistan last week and accused Washington of lying about its true intentions. Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, has called for an immediate end to the military strikes, saying they were causing a "human catastrophe."

But Mohsen Rezai, the former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard who now serves as the secretary of the powerful Expediency Council, said Iran was willing to set aside its concerns about the American attacks on Afghanistan and work with the United States in its war on terrorism, perhaps including the sharing of intelligence, The Financial Times reported today. "If the Americans get trapped in the swamp of Afghanistan, they will definitely need Iran," Mr. Rezai said in an interview with the newspaper.

While one European intelligence service has reported that Iran may be ready to reduce its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, a senior European official said, American officials say there is no evidence to support that assertion.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Swissrose (, October 16, 2001

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