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Iran had motive, means to help U.S. in toppling Taliban

By Donna Bryson, Associated Press, 11/15/2001 13:44

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) Tehran had the motive and the means, but there's only circumstantial evidence it helped the United States topple the Taliban, Iran-watchers said Thursday.

Iran and the United States have been estranged since the 1979 Islamic revolution that threw out the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, but they found themselves on the same side when it came to Afghanistan.

Iran saw Afghanistan's Taliban rulers as a threat to Islam and to stability in the region, while the United States accused them of harboring those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The anti-Taliban northern alliance troops who marched into the Afghan capital this week were backed by Iran, which had supplied them with arms, and the United States, whose bombing campaign launched in October tipped the balance in their favor in their long war with the Taliban.

''The whole regime in Iran has been constructed as anti-Zionist and anti-U.S.,'' said Bulent Aras, an Iran expert at Istanbul's Fatih University. ''At home, they are opposing U.S. policies. But in Afghanistan, their policies are very close to the United States.''

Ali Abootalebi, a political scientist of Iranian origin at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, noted Iran could have switched sides to back the Taliban, choosing a fellow Muslim government even a hated rival whose brand of Islam Iran considers extreme rather than see U.S. influence in the region grow.

But Iran did not try to arm the Taliban or launch a strong anti-U.S. propaganda campaign in the region.

''Iran has more or less acted as expected given its political divisions within and its position toward the U.S.,'' Abootalebi said. ''They're active through inaction.''

William Samii, editor of Iran Report, a Radio Free Europe publication that closely tracks events and politics in Iran, also said Tehran helped by showing restraint.

Samii said that though Iran announced U.S. warplanes on bombing missions to Afghanistan were barred from crossing its airspace, officials may have chosen not to notice if any did. He said Iran set that precedent when it looked the other way during the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. planes occasionally crossed Iran to bomb Iraq.

U.S. military officials have offered few details about their Afghan bombing strategies beyond saying most of the jets flew from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, which would have enabled America to skirt Iran. But other warplanes have been flying from land bases in Kuwait; it would be difficult to reach Afghanistan from that gulf state without crossing Iran.

After the bombing began, Iran assured the United States through Swiss intermediaries that it would try to rescue any American military personnel it finds in distress on its territory, a senior U.S. official said last month. That may have been a signal the Iranians were willing to accept overflights.

''They can be very practical about things,'' said Samii, who added it was also possible Iranian and U.S. military advisers, both helping the northern alliance, interacted.

Menashe Amir, head of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority's Iranian programs, said there also have been reports from Iran that U.S. supplies for the northern alliance were trucked across a corner of Iran.

The United States has been confirming little about the support it's getting even from its allies in the Mideast, let alone Iran.

Countries like Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia that may have provided staging grounds have done so quietly so as to avoid angering fellow Arabs who are suspicious the U.S. war on terrorism may be no more than a war on fellow Muslims.

Now that the Taliban have abandoned Kabul, Afghanistan's neighbors like Iran are hoping to influence who takes over. Both Iran and the United States want a stable Afghan government that freezes out the Taliban. But once the fighting is over, they may find their interests again diverging, this time over who will wield long-term influence in Afghanistan.

-- Anonymous, November 16, 2001

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