Ever since Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s “moderate” new president, addressed the U.S. public during a CNN interview in January, wishful thinking has pushed aside better judgment among those exploring potential changes in the U.S. policy toward Iran. Khatami’s overtures for cultural exchanges and a general lessening of tensions between the United States and Iran, while certainly welcome after years of mutual animosity, are but a prelude to a more concerted effort by Iran to play a larger role in both Middle Eastern and European affairs. The State Department’s April 1998 report on state-sponsored terrorism, branding Iran as the most active sponsor of such terrorism in the world, will serve as a cold dose of reality for advocates supporting warmer relations with Iran and a larger international role for an Iranian government as yet unrepentant for its past international misdeeds. The statement earlier this month by Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, in which he declared that Muslims all over the world welcomed Pakistan’s nuclear tests, was another chilling reminder of Iran’s dangerous attitude.
Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies reportedly has dismissed the State Department’s report as a “political document” with “the intellectual depth of a mud puddle.” If his characterization is the result of a belief that it creates a problem for those in the Clinton administration eager to hold out the olive branch to Iran, he’s right. Moreover, whatever the intellectual depth of the State Department’s report, the murky cesspool of international Iranian intrigue in the past few years is far deeper than a mud puddle.
An example is Iran’s sometimes public, more often surreptitious campaign for power and influence in the former Yugoslavia. There has been speculation among foreign-policy experts that, as part of a general effort to improve its relationship with the United States, Iran may offer its help in “shoring up” the Dayton peace accords and in maintaining the peace among Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia. This offer has been made and rejected in the past. It should be turned aside again.
Iranian policy toward the Balkan conflict has emphasized a long-term strategy aimed at capitalizing on the bloody plight of the embattled Bosnian Muslims in the pursuit of footholds of political and strategic significance in Europe. Iran has attempted to increase its influence in the Balkans since early 1992. It succeeded in winning the gratitude of the Bosnian Muslims by providing weapons to them, in violation of the U.N. arms embargo, from late 1993 through the end of 1995. The extent of Iran’s military assistance, and the terrorist baggage that went with it, to Bosnia was exposed by the highly publicized North Atlantic Treaty Organization raid on the joint Iranian-Bosnian terrorist training center near Fojnica, Bosnia, in February 1996.
A 1996 congressional investigation into the U.S. role in Iranian arms shipments to the Balkans detailed the alarming increase in Iranian influence in the Balkans and the long-term implications for the Balkan peace process, as well as the safety of U.S. peacekeeping forces. The investigating subcommittee made a number of startling findings, unfortunately forgotten or ignored by those intent on warmer relations with Iran. The increased Iranian influence in Bosnia was revealed by Iranian penetration of Bosnian intelligence, military and governmental organizations in 1994 and 1995, by the participation of Iranian moujahedeen as troops in the Bosnian forces and by the dramatic radicalization of Alija Izetbegovic’s political activities during the two years prior to the signing of the Dayton peace accords.
This growth of Iranian influence and the concomitant rise of the terrorist threat posed by the Iranian operatives were consequences of the administration’s decision to turn a blind eye to the Iranian arms pipeline through Croatia.
In May 1994, despite the Clinton administration’s public support of the U.N. arms embargo against the former Yugoslavia, U.S. diplomats signaled to the Croatians, Iranians and Bosnians that the United States would not interfere with Iranian efforts to transport and smuggle weaponry through Croatia to Muslim forces in Bosnia. This decision, concealed from Congress until its public exposure in spring 1996, became known as the “Iranian green light” and was the subject of the subcommittee’s investigation.
The classified nature of the investigation kept many of the more disturbing facts about Iranian activities in the Balkans under wraps throughout the 1996 presidential campaign. A declassified version of the subcommittee’s report was released in late 1996, just in time to become a major obstacle to the confirmation of W. Anthony Lake as director of Central Intelligence. Given the frightening consequences of the green-light policy, knowledge of which Lake guarded from Congress, his subsequent difficulties with confirmation were no surprise.
Within days of the green-light decision, in April 1994, the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, during a well-publicized visit to Sarajevo, presented to Izetbegovic a $1-million check and a promise of 10,000 tons of diesel fuel. Economic ties between Iran and Bosnia blossomed. On the diplomatic front, Iranian-Bosnian relations changed dramatically. Before April 1994, Iran did not even have an embassy in Bosnia. Within a year, Iran’s Bosnian embassy was the largest embassy in Sarajevo.
The Iranians set about encouraging the Bosnian government to take a decidedly fundamentalist approach with respect to the interplay between Islam and Bosnian society. Within the first few months of the flow of Iranian weaponry, the Bosnian government installed loudspeakers on Sarajevo street corners to broadcast the call to prayer in the mosques. In the summer of 1994, Bosnian women dressed in bathing suits were publicly beaten and others were reportedly shot in punishment for their perceived immodesty.
The Iranian campaign, stirring up the religious fervor of Bosnia’s Islamic fundamentalists, took a dramatic toll on the efforts of the Bosnians and the international community to assure that the Bosnian people will have a tolerant, peaceful and Western-oriented future. The Iranian efforts to influence the 1996 Bosnian elections blatantly included a $500,000 campaign contribution to Izetbegovic, which the Clinton administration acknowledged in the spring of 1997.
More significantly for the safety of U.S. troops and our allies in peacekeeping, Iranian arms that reached Bosnia were accompanied by Iranian military and intelligence personnel. By summer 1994, Iranians were serving throughout Bosnia as trainers and advisors for Muslim fighting forces. By late 1996, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had trained and indoctrinated thousands of Bosnian military members, both in Bosnia and in Iran. Direct participation of Iranians as moujahedeen combatants was also noteworthy. As of October 1994, U.N. sources estimated the number of Iranian fighters in Bosnia at roughly 1,000, while press reports put the number as high 4,000.
In trying to placate those opposed to U.S. involvement in the Bosnia peacekeeping process, the Clinton administration has contended that the Dayton accords mandated a decrease in Iranian presence and influence in the Bosnian government and that efforts to lower the number of Iranians have been successful. But whether the absolute numbers of identifiable Iranians in Bosnia is lower today than in November 1995, the Iranian presence remains strong. One need only recall the delay in the implementation of the “equip and train” programs, caused by the Bosnian government’s refusal to terminate some of its relationships with the Iranians, to illustrate the lingering problem.
Memories in modern times are dangerously short. Congress and the administration would do well to revisit the subcommittee’s findings as they evaluate new-found prospects for a new “relationship” with Iran. To entertain any offer by the Iranians to participate in the design or maintenance of peace in the Balkans is a risk that could enhance the prestige of this terrorist sponsor in a region in which Iranian influence has an unhealthy foothold. There is no point in assisting Iran’s efforts to build a network in the heart of Europe for future terrorist activities. Nor, with the rebuilding of Balkan peace so dependent on mutual trust and cooperation, should we strain relationships with our European allies, suspicious of Islamic influence since the days the Turks were attacking the gates of Vienna.
Lack of U.S. forethought and snap decisions created the Iranian problem in the Balkans. Caution, vigilance and examination of past mistakes are needed to prevent the recent Iranian overtures from compounding that problem.