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Iran May Pose Problems For Coalition

Iran's stance may pose problems for the U.S. as it strives to broaden the international coalition against terrorism.


A Special Report From Eurasianet.org


President George W. Bush has set out clear terms for the global war against terrorism. Around the world, states are either "with us or with the terrorists." In late September, Iran appeared to choose the latter. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refused to join the U.S.-led coalition, stating that his country would not join America in a fight against Iran's Muslim brothers in Afghanistan.

Washington was taken aback. Though hardly an ally of the United States, Shiia Iran has no common cause with the Sunni Taliban. Iran's patience has been tried by refugees pouring over its Afghan border, and Teheran came close to declaring war against the Taliban in 1998 after the killing of Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. In several years of difficult relations between the United States and Iran, arguably the single most important shared interest of both countries was ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban.

Backing the coalition also brought economic opportunity. For years reformist President Mohammad Khatami has sought to overturn American sanctions against his country, a policy goal shared by many in the Bush administration. Following sanction lifting in India, Pakistan, and Sudan (not to mention talk of military cooperation and strategic partnership with the Russians), the timing looked propitious for Iran to come to terms with the United States.



But domestic politics scotched the deal. President Khatami won his country's elections by a landslide 77 percent last June, but has been frustrated in implementing most of his electoral program by the Khamenei-led conservatives. A sudden policy change by the Iranian president, resulting in restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States and the loosening or removal of economic sanctions, would have been a critical defeat for the conservatives. And while the West prefers to conduct relations with Khatami, Khamenei remains the ultimate authority in the country. Hence the Iranians opted out.

This leaves the Bush administration with a lose-lose scenario: back off the "with-us-or-against-us" policy, or enforce it.

Accepting Iran's unwillingness to join the coalition gives other countries the green light to do the same. Most governments from the Muslim world face tremendous internal pressure to back away from U.S. policy - including Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, and even Saudi Arabia. Each defection erodes America's capacity to cut off terrorists' safe havens and financial support. A global war againt terrorism is very different from a military campaign against one or two rogue states.

Enforcement is equally risky. Exactly what consequences the United States would mete out is uncertain, but at the absolute least, taking seriously a "with-us-or-against-us" policy would require cutting off international trade. Unlike Iraq or North Korea, Iran is far from a pariah, and attracts wide-ranging international investment and, with it, political support. Stepping up pressure from the United States would alienate Iran's friends in the Middle East, not to mention America's European NATO allies, whose companies conduct considerable business there.

Early indications are that the Bush Administration will back down, and hope nobody notices. Secretary of State Colin Powell has already made it clear that the coming war will have many phases, and not all of America's friends are expected to participate in each. Iran, accordingly, is opting out of phase one.



President Bush might succeed with this artful dodge here in the United States, where Democrats and Republicans stand together when America's national security is concerned. But other states will likely take advantage of the opportunity to distance themselves from Washington. Two have already done so. The United Arab Emirates, after condemning the September 11 attacks and severing diplomatic ties with the Taliban, followed Khamenei's speech by stating continued Israeli killings of Palestinians would make them rethink their stance on the coalition. Saudi Arabia, America's most committed ally among the Arab states, has since opposed the launching of attacks from American bases there.

Serious diplomatic groundwork with Iran should be undertaken before the military campaign gets underway. British Home Secretary Jack Straw's historic meeting with President Khatami last week missed the point, preaching as he was to the choir. Since neither the United States nor

America's NATO allies have trusted contacts with Iran's conservatives, a flurry of Arab diplomacy is required, from Egypt to Syria. It will undoubtedly be difficult, and some sort of a deal (along the lines of those cut with Musharref's Pakistan and Putin's Russia) will have to be crafted. The alternatives are worse.

The sustaining of a truly global coalition on any issue is a monumental task. In the last two weeks, Washington has carried it off with adeptness, securing concrete cooperation from allies as well as countries with far different foreign policy agendas - Russia, Sudan, Pakistan, Syria - over 100 nations in all. Thus far, only Iran has defied early expectations. As the world moves on from September 11, more countries will undoubtedly join them.

The Bush Administrtion will face increasingly difficult decisions as realpolitik replaces empathy among its scores of coalition partners. Washington's choice of how to relate to its first agnostic will affect the shape of international relations for decades to come.

EurasiaNet is a Web site affiliated with the Open Society Institute, which is funded by George Soros. It provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Afghanistan, Russia and Turkey. The site presents a variety of perspectives on contemporary developments, using a network of correspondents based both in the West and in the region.

Material Courtesy Of Eurasianet; By Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute

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