by Iqbal Siddiqui (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 22, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1422)
One prominent feature of the West’s current war in Afghanistan, and its wider ‘war against terrorism,’ is the deliberate distortion of key facts in order to create a totally false impression of the situation for casual observers. Much of this is done through misinformation and propaganda, and many Muslims have become expert at re-interpreting misinformation in order to correct the distortions.
An obvious example of this is the suggestion that Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries have been critical of the US and have to some extent refused to cooperate with its war on Afghanistan. It is amply clear that the Saudis are Western puppets and agents; it is also clear to everyone that they would be severely criticised by Muslims if they support the West. It is therefore in the West’s interests to allow the impression that the Saudis are at least critical of the war, if not wholly opposed to it, in order to shore up an important ally. Few Muslims are fooled by such stratagems, as the nature of such Arab regimes is well established.
More, however, seem to have fallen prey to a similar strategy being used against the Islamic State of Iran. In this case, the West’s interest is to discredit Iran in the eyes of the Muslim world by creating the impression that it supports the war. This also helps the West’s more immediate interest of showing that it is not isolated from Muslim support, and that its war is not against Islam but against ‘terrorism’ as a phenomenon that threatens all countries. Thus it is a common line in Western reports and analyses that "Iran supports the war against terrorism," with the implication that it therefore also supports the US attacks on Afghanistan.
This is a simplification and distortion of Iran’s position that some Muslims — especially those who sympathise with the Taliban and are influenced by its traditional anti-Shi’i and anti-Iran stance — have fallen for completely. In fact, the Islamic state’s position is rather similar to the position instinctively taken by many Muslims. In his paper on the history of the Taliban (Crescent International, January 1-15, 2002), Dr Perwez Shafi of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought pointed out the irony that the only country to have spoken out in support of the Taliban against the US attacks was one that the Taliban themselves constantly condemned as kafirs.
Immediately after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre on September 11, the Rahbar, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, condemned them unreservedly as acts of terrorism, saying that "Mass killings of human beings are catastrophic acts that must be condemned wherever they may happen and whoever the perpetrators and the victims may be." He also said at the same time that the anger of the American people was understandable, and that their desire for justice echoed that of many other peoples around the world when they are subject to terrorist attack. It is these comments, and others like them by other officials of the Islamic State, which have subsequently been interpreted as expressing support for the US’s war in Afghanistan.
However, even as he was expressing his sympathy for the victims of the September 11 attacks, the Rahbar warned the US that they did not justify revenge being taken against innocent people. This was a line he developed in a later speech, to the families of martyrs from the first Gulf war (1980-88), on September 26. In this speech he said that Iran did not regard the US as "sincere in fighting terrorism," and "would not join in any move orchestrated by the US in this respect."
Instead, he criticised the US for deliberately targeting Muslims after the attacks, and making the situation more difficult for Muslims living in Western countries. He then went on to say: "The Islamic Republic of Iran will not help the US and its allies in any attack on Afghanistan... The innocent people of Afghanistan have suffered for 25 years. Are these Muslim people to be crushed once more because some other people are alleged to have taken part in the attacks in the United States, although [even] those accusations have not been proved?"
In his jum’ah khutbah on December 7, after almost a month of US air attacks on Afghanistan, Ayatullah Khamenei again criticised the US for what it was doing, saying that "every corner of the Islamic world is under attack these days" and that "the Afghanistan and Palestinian issues are the most fundamental of the Islamic world today. In both cases, an innocent Muslim people are under brutal attack." He made it clear that the West was fighting for its own interests "under the pretext of fighting terrorism," and that the US attacks are atrocities, saying that the bombings are "acts that will be registered as unforgettable war crimes... [that showed] no pity for the lives of innocent people — children, women and old men."
In line with this understanding of the nature of the US attacks on Afghanistan, as well as its wider role in the world, the Iranian government steadfastly refused to cooperate with the US in any aspect of the war. The US’s requests that Iran permit Western forces to use Iranian military bases and facilities were so unrealistic as to be ridiculous; but it was disappointed that Iran refused even to permit Western aircraft to overfly Iran during operations against Afghanistan. The only area in which there has been some limited Iranian cooperation with Western and international bodies has been in the provision of relief to the hundreds of thousands of Afghani refugees who have streamed towards or across Iran’s eastern border trying to escape the US bombing.
Iran has also been criticised for its political position vis-a-vis the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, both in the past and in the current situation. Expecting Islamic Iran to share the view taken by many Muslims outside Iran (including Crescent International) that the Taliban were an Islamic movement, albeit a severely misguided one, was always unrealistic, considering the Taliban’s stance towards Shi’as and Iran. Iran’s position was also influenced by the recognition that the Taliban had been established and helped to come to power by the US as part of its strategy to extend its influence in the region. At the same time, the Northern Alliance included those Afghani groups that Iran had traditionally worked with. It was the need to try to limit the US’s influence in the region, including in Central Asia, that pushed Iran towards cooperation with Russia, which it regards — understandably — as the lesser of two evils, if only barely so.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, when it became clear that the US would attack the Taliban, Iran was severely criticised for stepping up its efforts to maintain good relations with Russia and the Northern Alliance at precisely the time when Muslims around the world were rallying behind the Taliban, despite their shortcomings. Iran’s motive was again to try to prevent the Northern Alliance from falling totally into the hands of the US plans for the region; a vain hope, unfortunately, once the force of the US’s ambitions became clear. Russia, with similar interests to minimise the US’s penetration of Central Asia, quickly decided that its best bet was climb aboard the US’s bandwagon instead of trying to resist it, leaving Iran isolated.
In view of the positions taken by the Rahbar and Iran’s government, it is clearly wrong to suggest that Iran is supporting the US against the Taliban. The Rahbar’s forthright condemnation of the US’s actions make clear that Iran would like to do more against it if it had the capacity to do so. However, as on so many occasions in the past, and on many other issues — Palestine is an obvious example — Iran’s ability to back the principled position it espouses with hard action is limited. Now it has to adapt to surviving and operating in a regional geo-political situation that has suddenly become even harder for it than before.
In many ways the Islamic State has the same problems and issues as Islamic movements elsewhere; but as the only Islamic state in a hostile, West-dominated world, it also has considerations that some movements — especially those concerned more with theory and words than with realities and action — can hardly imagine.