9 October AFP

US attacks spark fear, uncertainty next door in Iran


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Iranians voiced fears Monday about a new wave of Afghan refugees as well as anxiety about what kind of government would replace the hated Taliban in Kabul, following the launch of US-British strikes on Afghanistan.

Iranians interviewed in Masshad, a sprawling city of three million people and scores of thousands of Afghan refugees close to the border with Afghanistan, generally echoed their government's condemnation of the strikes. However, a few supported them as a necessary response to terror.

What people feared most was another wave of refugees to add to the more than two million already living in Iran, most of them in the border provinces of Sistan-Baluchistan and Khorassan, which includes Masshad. "If this happens, we would be confronted by an economic crisis," said Mortaza, who runs a fabric shop in the bazaar near the shrine of Imam Reza, which draws millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims every year.

Iranians complain that Afghans take jobs from Iranians, as well commit crimes such as robbery and drug trafficking. There were signs Monday that new refugees were already heading to the Iranian border, in addition to the Pakistani and central Asian borders. An official with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cited unconfirmed reports from inside Afghanistan that groups of people are heading towards the Iranian border from both the northeast and southeast.

The UNHCR is preparing for a first wave of 80,000 refugees, though it has a worst-case scenerio of 400,000 people. The Iranian government insists it will keep its borders shut and build refugee camps on the other side, though several people interviewed here were not so sure it could keep the borders sealed for long.

While Iranians in Mashhad complained that the Afghans presented social and economic problems for Iran, most empathized with the plight of a people who have known only war for more than two decades. "I'm worried about the Afghan people," said Simin, a university professor who wore the Iranian chador, a black robe covering her hair down to her shoes.

A number of highly educated people such as Muslim clerics and university professors expressed anxiety about US strategic aims in Afghanistan. "I'm opposed to the Taliban rulers but also to the American attack," said Ghanbar Hosseini, a cleric who teaches at the Samer religious school in Mashhad. "The chances are further now for peace because America will set up its own government in Kabul and that government cannot bring peace," said the bespectacled cleric, who wore a white turban and long brown robe.

Shiite Iran is hostile to Afghanistan's ruling extremist and puritanical Sunni Taliban militia which is sheltering Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

However, Hosseini and university professors feared that whatever replaced Taliban rule could hurt not only Iranian interests but provoke widespread instability in the region. "America will set up a government there and it will not be a people's government," according to Ahmad Mohaghar, a political science professor at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad. "We're worried about it. It may be dangerous to our national security," he said. And because the new government will be a US-backed regime without popular support, it is condemned to the same fate of all the previous Afghan governments, provoking more regional instability, he said.

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