Tehran, March 23 (Reuters): While Tehran and Washington exchanged cordial messages over apparently errant missiles falling on Iran, the Islamic Republic’s top political figure struck a radically different note.
Yesterday, 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”.
The seemingly contradictory stances speak volumes for Iran’s mixed feelings over the second US-led conflict in just over a year.
While most officials make no secret of their hatred of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who used mustard and nerve gas against Iranian troops in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, they are loathe to offer support to the “Great Satan” Washington.
“They have to say these things and make these speeches,” said a western diplomat in Tehran. “One of the last remaining pillars of the (Islamic) revolution is anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism.”
Though the audience for this rhetoric may be dwindling among Iran’s young and largely pro-western population,“it is important for them to continue to stake their claim to have a leading voice in the Islamic world,” a European diplomat said.
”The growth of anti-American sentiment in the world is something the hardliners in Iran must be watching with delight,” political analyst Hossein Rassam added.
Despite the virulently anti-U.S. rhetoric, Iranian officials adopted a measured and non-antagonistic approach when an oil refinery depot in southwestern Iran, close to the Iraqi border, was struck by a rocket on Friday evening, injuring two guards.
INCIDENT PLAYED DOWN
Iran on Sunday said the rocket was fired by U.S. forces attacking southern Iraq, but played down the incident and said the missile had“gone off course”.
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 U.S. interests in Iran.
”We take seriously Iranian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department deputy spokesman Phillip Reeker said.
For diplomats in Tehran, the pattern of events has a familiar ring.
”It's the same old story. Critical rhetoric in public and tacit cooperation in private. It was the same over Afghanistan,” one European diplomat said.
Washington has passed on assurances that it does not have Iran, which is on its“axis of evil” list, in its sights as a military target and Tehran has responded by agreeing to stay out of the Iraq conflict and cooperate with humanitarian relief.
The cooperation, in part, reflects the hatred Iran shares with Washington for Saddam.
”The war very much serves Iran's objectives, namely the disarmament of Iraq and the removal of Saddam,” the European diplomat said.
The anti-Saddam sentiment is reflected in the fact that, unlike other capitals in the Middle East, the streets of Tehran have been devoid of anti-war protesters since the U.S.-led assault on Baghdad began.
”Protests against the war would be an insult to the families of the thousands of martyrs who died fighting Saddam,” said Dariush, 58, a civil engineer.