Attacks raise the possibility of US thaw with Iran

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The Independent Online

Some strange diplomatic fallout is emanating from the attacks on the United States, none more so than the high- profile feelers from Washington towards a sworn enemy – Iran.

Despite a small relaxation under the Clinton administration last year, whereby trade in carpets, nuts and a few other innocuous goods was allowed, Iran remains under a blanket of sanctions. These remain, but Tehran and Washington are now driven by that oldest of diplomatic adages: My enemy's enemy is my friend.

Undeclared enemy No 1 of the US right now is the Taliban of Afghanistan, the regime that shelters the "prime suspect", Osama bin Laden. Scarcely less hostile to the Islamist regime, however, is Iran.

Not only is Iran threatened by refugees from civil war and drought in Afghanistan and the drug smuggling that orginates there, Iran is a theocracy of mainly Shia Muslims, which sees the Taliban, a Sunni Muslim movement, as a religious rival and a persecutor of a Persian-speaking Shia minority in Afghanistan. Indeed, in 1998 eight of Tehran's diplomats were killed by the Taliban, raising fears of a full-scale Iranian attack on Afghanistan.

Already Iran has closed its 560-mile (900km) border with its eastern neighbour, to prevent a further flood of refugees trying to escape a new bombardment by the Americans – but Washington would like to extend the cooperation much further, despite all the sanctions in place.

These reflect Washington's insistence, dating back to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and that year's hostage taking at the US embassy in Tehran, that Iran is a state which sponsors terrorism – not only against the US but also, through groups such as Hizbollah, against Israel.

The Tehran authorities have made unprecedented gestures of support and solidarity with their opposite numbers in stricken New York.

Meanwhile, "interesting possibilities" were opening up with Iran, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said. President George Bush too has made clear that he wants his "crusade" against terrorism to extend to non-Christian countries, among them Iran.

No one is pretending that Iran and the nation it still calls "the Great Satan" are about to lie down together as lambs. But obvious confluences of interest abound in the current crisis.

Washington and Tehran could well make common cause in channelling military support to the Afghan opposition group, the Northern Alliance. It is struggling after the death of its former chieftain, General Ahmed Shah Masood, to hang on to the 5-10 per cent of Afghanistan it controls, and joint Iranian and American support would help it to recover.

Beyond that, collaboration has its limits. Despite a common enemy in Afghanistan, Iran remains an Islamic theocracy and rival of America in other spheres, above all in the Israeli conflict. However much President Mohammad Khatami would like to ease his country's estrangement from America, the religious leadership that runs Iran is less amenable.

The pattern may resemble the Gulf war, in which Iran did not take part in the US-led coalition against Iraq. This time too, Iran is unlikely to join any coalition, or permit America to overfly its territory – still less install bases. Experts caution that, just as a decade ago, the best to be hoped for is that Iran will do nothing to interfere.