Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said immediately after the 11 September attacks, which killed some 6,500 people, that his "deep sympathy goes out to the American nation, particularly those who have suffered from the attacks."
At the same time, a top Iranian security official, Hassan Rowhani, said the attacks showed that "all governments should cooperate for a logical way to curb" the spread of terrorism in the world.
The expressions of understanding struck many observers as unprecedented for the Islamic Republic, which officially regards the U.S. as an enemy state. They were all the more startling given that Washington accuses Iran itself of being a state sponsor of terrorism and regularly condemns Tehran for backing Islamic militant groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell voiced some of the U.S. surprise when he commented on the Iranian remarks for U.S. media. He said that "Iran made a rather positive statement, for Iran" and called the statements "worth exploring."
A State Department spokeswoman added afterward that "if Iran will oppose all terrorism, including support for Hezbollah, then this possibility could be explored." Reuters reports that the United States sent Iran a message through the Swiss embassy in Tehran in response to the "positive statements," but no details of that message are available.
But if Tehran's first remarks suggested it might be open to finding ways to cooperate in an international coalition against terrorism, Iran has moved in recent days to draw clear limits around the form any such cooperation could take.
Tehran has cautioned against any U.S. military strike against Afghanistan for harboring Osama bin Laden and said it will support only a UN-led international effort against terrorism.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, warned that, "If America wants to wage war on Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan and expand its influence in the region, it will see its problems mounting."
Iranian President Khatami spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair by telephone yesterday and urged restraint by Washington. The conversation is believed to be the first at such a top level between the United Kingdom and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Bahman Baktiari, a regional expert at the University of Maine in the northeastern U.S., says the mixed statements of sympathy and warning reflect an internal debate in Iran over how to respond to the new crisis. He says that debate pits reformists, who want warmer ties with Washington to ease Iran's diplomatic isolation, against hardliners, who want to avoid any appearance of backing any U.S.-inspired effort that targets a Muslim country.
Baktiari says the debate is now resolved by the supreme leader's statement stressing the need for an international coalition. An international coalition would offer Tehran a pragmatic way to support the ousting of the Taliban -- with which Iran has hostile relations -- while avoiding any criticism over siding with America. Baktiari said:
"Iran, in contrast to other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, has to take its position in such a fashion that balances several different trends inside Iranian politics. The leaders in Iran prefer the '6+2 Group' formula at the United Nations -- that is, the formula that was created to solve Afghanistan -- because 6+2 allows Iran to participate in this coalition without publicly losing face that it is siding with the United States."
The 6+2 Group comprises the six states, including Iran, that border Afghanistan, plus the United States and Russia. It was formed in 1997 under the leadership of the UN secretary-general to seek a regional solution to the Afghan conflict.
Baktiari says that one reason Iran is actively trying to put the new U.S.-Afghan crisis into an international framework is that it fears unilateral U.S. action could end with Afghanistan falling under the sway of the United States.
"Iranians will be very concerned in terms of how [any] war is conducted in Afghanistan because even within the reformist camp there are voices of concern about the impact of an unending war in Afghanistan pursued by the United States upon the national security of Iran."
"Is the United States going to support the [anti-Taliban] Northern Alliance as a substitute government for Afghanistan? Or is the United States going to support the monarchy? [The former king of Afghanistan)] Zahir Shah is still alive and is a contender. The question really for the Iranians is the end point and that is not clear right now."
That means that so long as Washington's long-term plan for Afghanistan remains unclear, there is little reason to expect Iran to cooperate with U.S.-led operations against the Taliban. Tehran yesterday underlined its opposition to unilateral U.S. efforts by saying it will never allow Washington to use its airspace for attacks on Afghan targets.
Iran closed its border with Afghanistan last week, saying it anticipates that any new conflict there will create a flood of new Afghan refugees.
U.S. President George W. Bush warned Afghanistan's Taliban rulers yesterday to hand over Osama bin Laden and his followers or "share in their fate" when Washington responds to the recent terrorist attack on America.