With thousands of American soldiers now calling Kandahar home and post-Taliban stability nowhere in sight, Washington isn't brooking Iranian mischief in Afghanistan. Three weeks ago, responding to reports that Iran was sending arms to pliant Afghan warlords and even harboring al-Qaeda fugitives, President Bush issued an ultimatum: "If they in any way, shape or form try to destabilize the government," he said, "the coalition will deal with them, in diplomatic ways initially." The line played well with most Americans, who are still inclined to believe the worst about Iran. Washington lists Iran as the top state sponsor of terrorism and regularly warns that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. last year cited an Iranian military officer for helping engineer the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Iran's hard-line establishment continues to support the destruction of Israel and has aided and abetted the radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Lebanon's Hizballah militia. The State Department said on Jan. 10 that "the weight of the evidence" suggests Iran was involved in the thwarted shipment of 50 tons of arms to the Palestinian Authority, despite Iran's denial. As TIME reported, Israel says the shipment was orchestrated by operatives close to Imad Mughniyah, a notorious Hizballah terrorist who has long enjoyed support from Iran.
Does that make Iran a first-order threat? The ongoing struggle between pro-Western reformists, led by democratically elected President Mohammed Khatami, and religious conservatives loyal to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, certainly makes Iran a volatile power. The rhetoric of the country's religious leaders is peppered with anti-American bile, and powerful elements within Iran's conservative security establishment have in the past launched free-lance operations abroad as a way to undermine relations with the West. Now the discord is playing out in Afghanistan. While Khatami is trying to influence post-Taliban political arrangements without alienating the international coalition, U.S. officials believe, security operatives loyal to Khamenei may be stirring up unrest outside the Khatami government's command.
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.