(CNSNews.com) - Iran "strongly" condemned the assassination of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, but a leading critic of Tehran warned that the regime would likely try to exploit the situation in its troubled, nuclear-armed neighbor.
"Whatever the aim behind this criminal act had been, the Iranian government and nation condemn the attack," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Thursday evening. "Those who hatched such plots are the common enemies of Pakistan and other states in the region."
Iranian state television quoted foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini as urging the Pakistan government to "use all efforts to identify the terrorist group which caused this incident and punish them."
A gunman shot and fatally wounded Bhutto in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, before detonating a bomb that killed at least another 20 people. The former two-term prime minister was campaigning ahead of Jan. 8 parliamentary elections on behalf of her Pakistan People's Party, and was viewed by many as a likely future prime minister under President Pervez Musharraf.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, an exiled Iranian opponent of Tehran and regional expert who in 2002 blew the whistle on his country's covert nuclear program, attributed the assassination to Islamic radicals who "could not tolerate a secular, anti-extremist Muslim woman rising in the political process in Pakistan."
The situation was particularly dangerous for a number of reasons, he said in an interview. Pakistan is nuclear-armed; it has a large population (it is the second-most populous Islamic country, and sixth in world rankings); it is home to a large number of extremists; and it is a neighbor to Iran, "the world capital of global Islamic fundamentalism."
Jafarzadeh said Pakistan's proximity to Iran is important, because it has made it easier for Iran's Shi'ite regime to cultivate, assist and arm extremists inside Pakistan.
"Tehran will provide assistance to anyone, anywhere that would serve their purpose," he said,
"Denomination is not a major factor," he added. "If Sunni elements serve Tehran's purpose, Tehran would try to help them."
He cited as examples Iranian assistance to anti-Western extremists, including Sunni groups, in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Palestinian self-rule areas, and Pakistan itself.
Jafarzadeh said Iran could be expected to try to take advantage of Bhutto's assassination - both to counter U.S. security interests in the region by encouraging further instability and possibly in the hope that a chaotic situation will make it easier for Iran to obtain further access to nuclear know-how.
He noted that Iran was allegedly the biggest beneficiary of the nuclear black market network run by the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, exposed in early 2004.
Jafarzadeh in 2002 helped to uncover nearly two decades of Iranian covert nuclear activity, triggering the as-yet unresolved standoff between Tehran and the international community.
(At the time he was a leading member of the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran, which along with its associated Mujahedeen Khalq is labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department, but enjoys some sympathy in Congress. A judge in the U.K. recently ordered that the MEK be removed from a British terror list, and its blacklisting has also been ruled contrary to European Union law.)
Jafarzadeh, now the president of the Washington-based group Strategic Policy Consulting, is the author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis, published earlier this year.
Implications for Afghanistan?
Iran specialist Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, agreed late Thursday that Tehran would take advantage of the situation in Pakistan to further its strategic interests in the region.
"Most directly, this is likely to mean a further solidification of its influence in Afghanistan, as Islamabad retracts its control there," he said.
On the other hand, Berman said he doubted that Iran was "optimally positioned to exploit the current chaos to advance its own atomic program."
"To the extent that it is able to do so, Iran certainly will seek to capitalize on any loose nuclear technology that results," he said.
"But its acquisition of WMD-related know-how from Pakistan has generally been from non-state actors such as the A.Q. Khan network. And those contacts are by-and-large unlikely to be affected by the unfolding political turmoil in Islamabad," Berman added.
Suspicions persist about the extent of the Khan network and possible involvement of senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials, but Musharraf, who pardoned the nuclear scientist, has refused to allow foreign officials to directly question him.
Bhutto earlier this year said that she would support giving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Khan.
"We do believe that the IAEA ... would have the right to put questions to A.Q. Khan, that would satisfy them and give the world community greater confidence that the illegal structure has been broken and that no more dangerous repercussions for the world community come about due to those activities," she said during a press conference hosted by the Middle East Institute in September.
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