Tehran's Game

Iranian meddling in neighboring Afghanistan raises new concerns about an old troublemaker

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That said, even the country's conservatives have lost interest in returning to the days of exporting revolution and issuing fatwas against novelists. Iran's constitution gives the Supreme Leader final say over foreign relations, but Khatami has increased his clout by reactivating the powerful Supreme National Security Council and working to change the country's image as a regional menace. The President has normalized relations with Iran's Arab neighbors, cozied up to Russia and improved ties with Germany, France and Britain. Iran and Iraq have shown signs of a possible rapprochement, but with the Bush Administration making noise about taking the war on terrorism to Baghdad, a senior Iranian official told TIME, Iran might cooperate in a military campaign to remove its old enemy Saddam Hussein. "Obviously, this can't be our public stance," the official says. "But our history [with Iraq] is bitter enough that we'd be happy to pull another Afghanistan."

Even before Sept. 11, the reformists in Iran had begun nudging the country closer to an accommodation with the U.S. than it had been since 1979, when Washington suspended diplomatic relations after Iranian radicals made hostages of Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Polls show that large segments of the Iranian people--65% of whom were born after the 1979 Islamic revolution--favor a rapprochement with the Great Satan.

The aftermath of Sept. 11 has produced some breakthroughs. Shortly after that day, British Prime Minister Tony Blair phoned Khatami and arranged for Foreign Minister Jack Straw to visit Tehran; his was the highest-level Western delegation to go there in two decades. Iran had an interest in moving toward the mainstream. Its history of sponsoring terrorists made it a potential U.S. target when Bush declared a general war on terrorism. Sources close to Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guards--which are allied with Iran's ruling clerics--say the Guards have withdrawn nearly all their troops from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, probably out of fear the U.S. might attack them for aiding Hizballah.

Before launching the war in Afghanistan, the U.S., with the British government acting as intermediary, secured Iran's agreement to rescue any American pilots who might be downed over Iran by the Taliban, a regime Tehran loathed and actively sought to remove long before the West took notice. Iran instructed its Northern Alliance clients to cooperate with the U.S., and while registering nominal concerns about civilian casualties, it did not object when American bombers continued strikes during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

The U.S. suspects that several hundred al-Qaeda operatives have slipped out of Afghanistan and into Iran. But that seemed to happen in spite of efforts by Tehran, which tried to keep al-Qaeda fighters out by tightening border patrols and reimposing visa restrictions on gulf Arabs. "Some may have escaped here," says a Western diplomat in Tehran, "but not with government complicity." Iran's Shi'ites detest al-Qaeda's brand of Sunni extremism. Terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden were allegedly responsible for the 1994 bombing of the shrine of Imam Reza, Iran's holiest site.

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