MANAMA, BAHRAIN, SEPT. 12 -- Iran's supreme religious leader said today that an Islamic "holy war" is justified to oppose U.S. troop deployment in the Persian Gulf and he hinted that Moslem terrorists might strike American targets in the region.
The remarks by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reported by Tehran Radio, marked the sharpest attack to date by an Iranian leader against the U.S. presence in the gulf. Khamenei's speech also paralleled recent attempts by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to rally Moslem opinion against the United States by appealing to the Islamic tradition of launching holy wars against unbelievers.
Although Khamenei's speech reiterated Iran's condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and its support of U.N. sanctions against Baghdad, his combative words -- coupled with recent peace moves between Iran and Iraq -- are seen likely to raise concerns in the West about Iran's posture in the gulf crisis.
So far, no evidence has emerged that Iran is preparing to open a major breach in the wall of economic isolation erected around Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2. But on Monday the formerly bitter foes announced restoration of diplomatic ties and today the Tehran Times reported that Iran might send food to Iraq for humanitarian reasons.
At the United Nations today, the Security Council's sanctions committee failed to reach consensus on criteria for sending and distributing emergency food aid to Iraq and occupied Kuwait, setting the stage for the contentious issue to be voted on in the full Security Council.
Informal Security Council consultations have been scheduled for Thursday morning and the issue could be put to a vote later in the day.
Khamenei, who in 1989 inherited the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's position as religious leader -- but not the breadth of Khomeini's political power -- said that "confronting the greedy interventionist schemes of the United States to encroach on the Persian Gulf is considered jihad" -- or holy war -- "and anybody who is killed on that path is a martyr," special correspondent Sharif Imam-Jomeh reported from Tehran.
The Iranian leader hinted at future terrorist attacks against U.S. targets by Shiite Moslem radicals when he referred to the 1983 suicide truck-bomb assault on the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon by a pro-Iranian group. The attack killed 241 U.S. servicemen and led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Beirut.
"It's surprising how the Americans don't take lessons," Khamenei said. "They saw how vulnerable their presence can be. Have they forgotten how a bunch of pious Moslem youth . . . swept them away and evicted them from Lebanon?"
Khamenei said the United States shared much of the blame for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait because it had supplied Iraq with arms -- intending, he said, that they be used against Iran. The Iraqi invasion, he said, addressing the United States, "was made possible only by you mobilizing Iraq to the degree that it made Iraq arrogant enough to invade Kuwait."
Speaking about efforts to deal with Iraq, he said Iran has declared itself "ready, through cooperation with Persian Gulf countries, to cut short the hands of aggressors," adding, and addressing himself again to Washington, "It is the duty of regional countries; it has nothing to do with you."
It was not clear whether Khamenei's strong remarks against the United States today enjoyed the full support of Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is generally seen as more cautious and pragmatic than the radical religious leaders with whom he shares power. Earlier Iranian statements on the gulf crisis had condemned the dispatch of U.S. forces to the region but had stopped short of calling for a holy war against American targets.
Whatever its ripple effects within Iran's radical society or among Western nations hoping to win Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait through unified sanctions, Khamenei's speech contained an apparently calculated assertion of Iranian goals and interests in the gulf region that long predate the present crisis.
Iran's radical Shiite Moslem leaders have for more than a decade opposed America's Arab partners in the gulf region, particularly the leaders of Saudi Arabia, members of a conservative Sunni Moslem sect, and the smaller gulf sheikdoms, who now enjoy the protection of the massive U.S. troop buildup.
Since their revolution in 1979, Iranian clerics consistently have attempted to stir up religious and social troubles for the gulf's Sunni royal families, accusing the sheiks of being corrupt servants of Western interests.
Moreover, during its eight-year war against Iraq, Iran sought to project itself as the preeminent naval power in the Persian Gulf, through which it imports food and exports oil. Iran sees its military and economic position in the gulf under threat because of the heavy deployment of U.S. and European naval forces in the region.
The Tehran Times, an English-language daily with ties to Rafsanjani, reported today that Iran's government is mulling over whether to send food and medicine to Iraq -- a move, the paper said, that would provide Baghdad "an outlet in its present strapped position."
U.N. sanctions adopted after the invasion of Kuwait allow food and medical shipments "in humanitarian circumstances," and the Tehran Times report suggested that Iran's supply effort would be driven by humanitarian considerations.
"Moslem Iraqi people shouldn't pay for the mistakes of their government," it said.
Large-scale trading across the 750-mile Iran-Iraq border would represent the first major breach in the sanctions effort, however.
Analysts and diplomats in the region see limits to Iran's willingness and ability to aid Iraq. Iran suffered 500,000 deaths in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which Saddam started. Despite Iraq's sudden offer last month to withdraw its remaining troops from Iranian territory and recognize prewar borders, enmity toward the Iraqi regime runs deep among many Iranians, who differ with Baghdad on matters of religion, ideology, ethnicity and language.
Iran also has economic reasons to cooperate with the international blockade against Iraq. A five-year war-recovery plan strongly backed by Rafsanjani calls for $27 billion in credits from the West. Iran's need for outside funds is seen as a key factor in its recent attempts to moderate some of its more radical stances. Iran recently restored diplomatic ties with Britain, which had been severed at the time of the Salman Rushdie affair.
Even if Iran were inclined to help Iraq with food supplies, its efforts would be limited by its own war-shattered transport facilities and by Iran's status as a net importer of billions of dollars worth of food each year.
Beyond food supplies, Western concerns about Iran's posture in the crisis have focused on oil sales, Iraq's most important economic lifeline. After Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz visited Tehran for high-level talks Sunday, rumors circulated in the Iranian capital that Iraq had sought permission to secretly export its oil through Iranian facilities.
No evidence of such a deal has emerged. But if Iran did agree to sell Iraq's oil, such a move would severely complicate the U.S.-led naval blockade effort in the gulf, which naval officers say has been made simple by Iran's cooperation. In the event of an open alliance between Iran and Iraq, U.S. warships might have to contend with Iran's navy while attempting to seal off Iranian ports and oil terminals along its lengthy coastline.
Special correspondent Trevor Rowe reported from the United Nations:
The Security Council's sanctions committee, which operates by consensus, has been deadlocked in its attempt to interpret Resolution 661, which imposed sanctions on Iraq but allows for food to be delivered in "humanitarian circumstances."
Cuba and Yemen insist on a broad interpretation that would allow virtually all basic foodstuffs to be sent while the five permanent members of the Security Council -- China, Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union -- seem agreed on the need for a strict overall framework for assessing food needs and distributing goods.
"On the framework for dealing with food, it appears as if a couple of members of the sanctions committee are using the consensus rule to hold up the progress," U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering said following today's inconclusive meeting. "So the chairman suggested, and we enthusiastically supported, moving right away to the Security Council."
In a working paper that could be used as the basis of a draft resolution setting out the framework for food aid, there is a suggestion that the U.N. secretary general seek information on the availability of food in Iraq and Kuwait to help the sanctions committee recommend specific action.