Iran struggles to keep stance of active neutrality

It could hardly have been a more muted response. With a full-scale invasion of Iraq in progress, up to three missiles missed their targets and crashed inside Iranian territory, hitting an oil refinery depot in Abadan and injuring two people.

Iran fears a Turkish military on its borders as well as a Kurdish state

Surely reason enough to prompt a frantic reaction from Tehran. But Iran’s public reaction bordered on the cordial. Officials mused that the rocket had apparently “gone off course” and made conciliatory noises.


The United States, which broke diplomatic ties with Iran shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has responded by taking the unusual step of publicly acknowledging it has been communicating with Tehran over the missile incident through the Swiss embassy, which represents US interests in Iran.


“We take seriously Iranian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department deputy spokesman Phillip Reeker said.


Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic’s top political figure struck a radically different tone. In a speech on Saturday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the head of Iran’s clerical establishment, railed against the US-led attack on Iraq and said it represented the “emergence of a new form of Hitlerism”. Simultaneously, wires were quoting British commandos stationed in the Faw Peninsula saying that Iranian soldiers were taking pot-shots at them from across the Arabian Gulf.


The seemingly contradictory stances speak volumes about Iran’s mixed feelings over the second US-led conflict on its doorstep in just over a year. Barely had the Islamic republic recovered from US accusations that it was harbouring Al-Qaeda elements escaping from Afghanistan that it found itself facing the prospect of renewed tension with Washington over Iraq. The country’s leadership is observing the encroaching US military presence on its borders as Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait – and soon Iraq too – host American troops. The occupation of Iraq will lead to the completion of a military ring around Iran that is causing concern in Tehran’s political circles.



But this concern is not being made public. One reason could be the bad blood between Iran and its western neighbour. An eight-year war of the most ideological and personal kind was waged between Iraq and Iran, leaving around a million dead from both sides. Iran’s technological inferiority was offset by ideological zeal with ‘human waves’ crashing against Iraqi tanks. But the attitude of enmity towards Baghdad is balanced by the negative reaction towards Washington, whose long-standing opposition to Iran dates from the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Last year, Iran was one of three countries labelled an ‘axis of evil’ by the current Bush administration.


This ambivalence towards taking sides was evident in comments made by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in support of Iraq. He said that he objects “to an attack against an Islamic country, to the broad violation of the international laws, and to laying the foundation of an unhealthy method in international relations that can lead to the emergence of a chaotic world in which force dictates the rules.”But Kharrazi also stressed that the Iraqi government’s conduct has led to his country suffering “far more losses than any other country.”


But Tehran is under tremendous diplomatic pressure to preserve its neutrality. Iran has too much to lose and too little to gain by straying from its agreed policy of “active neutrality” over Iraq.


“A potential threat to Iran, (Saddam) is being removed, and they know they have to be on good behaviour because, if not, they could be next on Washington’s list,” said another local political analyst, who asked not to be named.


In a war where the outcome is overwhelmingly expected to favour of the US-led troops, staying on best behaviour is essential if Iran is not to be thrown into the US firing line, diplomats say.


“They have been told through various third parties that they will not be next after Baghdad, but they’ve also been told not to meddle in Iraq,” one Asian diplomat in Tehran said. All the same, Iran’s military has placed its military in a state of alert and reinforced its border with Iraq as a precaution, particularly in areas adjoining Kurdish areas.


Torn by its hatred of the two lead protagonists and deeply mistrustful of Turkish actions in North Iraq, Tehran remains on the sidelines – just. But Iran also stands to benefit from high oil prices over the duration of the conflict. With prices already down by $10 a barrel since the start of the war, the Iranian deputy oil minister, Mehdi Mir-Moezi, announced that he expects crude oil prices to drop to around $18 per barrel when the US-led war on Iraq ends. A protracted conflict, general regional instability and a weakened Iraq could well be in Iran’s best interests.


On the other hand, the prospect of a ‘clientised,’ pro-US Iraq being used as a launchpad to foster tension against the Islamic republic is setting nerves on edge in Tehran. The prospect of Iran getting involved in the Iraq war is enough to send shivers down the spine of  the Pentagon’s military planners. Not only would it signal a radical regional escalation, it could also mean that Turkey, as well as hitherto uninvolved countries such as Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia, enter the fray.


With an estimated half a million troops, around 300 combat aircraft and dozens of medium-range ballistic missiles at its disposal, Iran’s army poses a bigger threat to the US than Iraq’s depleted and demoralised troops. On cue, Iran’s military warned on Sunday that it will “react” to fresh airspace violations of its airspace by US and British warplanes, according to the IRNA official news agency.


“Our soldiers on the border are on full alert… If they observe the slightest violation of Iranian airspace or at the border they will certainly react,” said Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari.