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Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2001
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a harsh speech today about how Iran would not join any U.S.-led coalition. His words were a remarkeable shift in tone from official reactions since the September 11 attacks in the U.S. Only last week TIME's Tehran correspondent Azadeh Moaveni talked with influential cleric Taha Hashemi, editor of the conservative Iranian newspaper Entekhab. Hashemi, who is close to Supreme Leader Khamenei, struck a much more positive tone. The shift indicates how volatile this coalition-building excercise can be. Here are excerpts from TIME's interview with Hashemi, conducted last week in Tehran:
TIME: What would Iran like to see happen now in Afghanistan? Would it prefer to see the Taliban done away with in a quiet coup or a military strike?
Hashemi: Iran wants secure borders. Afghanistan has always been a worry, from communism to civil war and so on. If the U.S. eliminates support for the Taliban through economic tightening, [the Taliban] be unable to survive without a war. An American action that results in civilian deaths will only inflame resentments, and this will work to the advantage of the Taliban. Iran would love to have the Afghanistan problem fixed. The U.S. stands the best chance to do this by cooperating with Afghanistan's neighbors under a framework the international community accepts. If the U.N., the U.S. and these neighbors can reach an agreement, they can use their borders to help resist the Taliban.
TIME: Do you think this an opportunity for the U.S. and Iran to work on their relationship?
Hashemi: We're speaking in Iran of dialogue. Doesn't dialogue have more to do with reconciliation and friendship, than war? Iran has taken steps to improve its relationship with the U.S. Perhaps all this bitterness can carry a blessing. If the U.S. is serious about breaking down the wall of mistrust that exists between our two countries, this is an environment in which this can happen. We have shared issues at stake, and can cooperate on them. After 10 to 15 such instances, both sides will slowly begin to believe in the sincerity of the other's rhetoric. Now is an appropriate environment.
TIME: How urgently does Iran feel it should take advantage of this opportunity?
Hashemi: Obviously, neither side sees a relationship with the other as totally crucial. But by not having ties, both sides are losing out. Each has certain needs the other can fulfill. This creates the need to use opportunities that come up to create a common understanding. This is a good opportunity to move in the direction of creating trust.
TIME: Can you describe the mechanics of trust-building?
Hashemi: Partly, there's a need to communicate concerns, and see that those concerns are registered. Expanded cultural ties would also help create a climate of understanding. When U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote a letter to Khatami, this was useful because trust hasn't yet been developed. Our diplomatic apparatus can also play a role in taking us in this direction.
TIME: Do political factions in Iran—the reformists and conservatives—agree on how to approach U.S. ties?
Hashemi: Factions inside support ties. Perhaps if the right-wing was in power now it would make more of an effort to build relations. But because establishing ties could be a winning card for their rivals, the factions in Iran deal with this cautiously. But today it's in our interest to pursue this, and so we'll deal with this behind closed doors, and later publicly. The Foreign Ministry can help, and so can non-direct moves. Blair's letter was really helpful, as it reinforced that the U.S. doesn't want to wage war against Muslims. Friendly nations, and our Foreign Ministry, can all help build trust.
TIME: But don't you agree that Iran-U.S. relations still face a dead-end? The U.S. has made it clear it wants to pursue economic and political ties concurrently, and Iran wants economic ties first. The positions haven't changed.
Hashemi: Every time the U.S. takes one step forward, it takes two steps back! Take Iran's assets in the U.S., frozen since the revolution. The U.S. doesn't need this money and could have released it. This would have neutralized a lot of domestic opposition to ties. But Blair's letter has created movement in Iran. These kinds of letters and contacts can lead to understanding and achievements that in turn could lead to discussion of all dimensions.
TIME: Would Iran offer any assistance to a U.S.-led coalition against terrorism?
Hashemi: First, we need definite proof of Osama bin Laden's involvement. Second, the management of any coalition should be with the United Nations. This would establish some global trust, and reduce resistance or complications with the entire effort. Strategically, the U.S. doesn't need Iran's border. And with our history that kind of cooperation can't be expected so swiftly. We really fear that what affects our neighbors will end up affecting us. This would multiply our problems. We oppose a rash and hasty reaction, but we all are willing to help deal with terror. As we say in Persian, 'A camel can fall asleep in front of anyone's house.' We all need to work together.