WASHINGTON -- President Bush warned Iranian officials Thursday not to harbor al-Qaida fighters fleeing Afghanistan and not to try to destabilize the country's new government. If the warning is ignored, Bush said, the U.S.-led coalition ''will deal with them ... in diplomatic ways, initially.''
Until now, the United States has quietly praised longtime foe Iran for its help in the war on international terror. Iranians and Americans have worked together to fight the Taliban and to create Afghanistan's new government.
Now, however, Iran is moving to safeguard its traditional influence in western Afghanistan, apparently unnerved by growing U.S. military influence on almost all sides, analysts said.
U.S. intelligence has evidence that Iran is providing sanctuary for a small number of al-Qaida fighters who fled the fighting in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Iran denied those reports on Thursday. An official called Bush's warning ''baseless'' and said Iran wants neighboring Afghanistan to be stable and independent.
''Iran has never been on good terms with the Taliban and their supporters,'' said Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. ''It has been our policy not to allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in Iran.''
Indeed, many analysts believe Iran, which hated the Taliban and is suspicious of al-Qaida, merely is doing what Russia and Pakistan are doing: working with local warlords to guarantee their interests in Afghanistan don't get swept aside.
''Iran regards Afghanistan like we regard Mexico,'' said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and Inter-national Studies in Washington. ''It is a vital, critical interest for them, and they have every right to be consulted and involved.''
Reports that al-Qaida fighters fled to Iran could simply be a sign that Iran does not totally control its border, said Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute, noting that al-Qaida also fled to key U.S. ally Pakistan. Or hard-liners in Iran's government might be helping al-Qaida, he said. But Iran's Shiites and Afghanistan's Sunnis represent different Islamic sects, long hostile.
Since the Taliban fell, Iran has sent aid and promises of reconstruction across the border.
It says it seeks a more stable Afghanistan in part so 1 1/2 million refugees now inside Iran can go home.
''We have a special relationship with Afghanistan,'' Iran's consul in Herat, Mohammad Alagizadeh, told The Associated Press recently. ''The end of the Taliban is a chance to begin again.''
But U.S. officials worry that Iran's main ally in Afghanistan, warlord Ismail Khan, does not sufficiently support the new U.S.-backed prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
''Iran must be a contributor in the war against terror. Our nation, in our fight against terror, will uphold the doctrine, 'Either you're with us, or against us,''' Bush said.
The president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said Iran ''is a center for supporting terrorism. There is no doubt about that.''
''The United States has long said that Iran is a state that supports terrorism,'' she said in an interview broadcast Thursday by Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. International.
''And we have every evidence that Iran continues to support terrorism. Until there is a change in that behavior it's going to be very difficult for the dynamics between the United States and Iran to change.''
The president said Iran should hand over any al-Qaida supporters who might flee Afghanistan. And he said: ''If they try, in any way, shape or form to destabilize the government, the coalition will deal with them ... in diplomatic ways, initially.''
The president said he hoped the two can still work together. ''We had some positive signals early in this war from the Iranians. We would hope that they would continue to be a positive force,'' he said.
Iran and the United States have not had ties since the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran condemned the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, however, which led officials including Secretary of State Colin Powell to explore the chance of closer relations.
Iran is torn internally between a moderate president and Islamic hard-liners.
The United States accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism worldwide, of secretly developing nuclear weapons and of undermining the Middle East Israeli-Arab peace process.
On Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher cited ''compelling evidence that Iran and Hezbollah were involved'' with a ship full of weapons, allegedly for Palestinian militants, that Israel recently seized.
Nevertheless, Iran and the United States have worked closely on Afghanistan.
''The Iranians have committed themselves, and indeed (at U.N.-sponsored meetings) in Bonn (Germany) worked to try to bring about a broad-based government for Afghanistan,'' Boucher said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that early in the war, American special operations troops fought alongside Iranians on the ground.
The Americans and Iranians had joined Afghan rebels in their fight against the Taliban.
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