TEHRAN 20 Sept. (IPS) Iran’s leading dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hoseinali Montazeri became the first ever high-ranking Muslim cleric to express his sorrow to the American government and leaders while offering his deepest sympathy to the American people, but particularly the families of the victims of the devastating 11 September terrorist operations.

Mr. Montazeri, Iran’s and the Shi’a Muslims highest ranking religious leader vigorously condemned the operations, attributed to Mr. Ossama Ben Laden, a Saudi national opposed to the West in general and America in particular and in which terrorist commandos crushed two jetliners filled with passengers and crew into the twin towers of World Trade Center in New York and another one over the Pentagon, in Washington D.C., killing and wounding thousands of people.

Ayatollah Montazeri, 74, is living under house arrest conditions imposed on him by Iranian ruling leader since October 1979 after he openly criticized Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’I for his "kingly lifestyle", his both egocentrism and authoritarianism, but particularly his daily interferences in the government and president’s affairs.

Responding to questions put to him from his adepts on different issues, including the situation that has developed in the region after the 11 September operations, the Grand Ayatollah started by offering his "deep" sorrow and condolences" to the American government and its leaders, as well as to the American people and the families of the victims, braving a "red line" imposed by ruling conservatives, separating American government and officials from the people.

Under that condition, all Iranian officials, including President Mohammad Khatami, expressed sympathy with the American people and the families of those buried under tons of earth, but ignoring the American government and President.

But this did not prevent Iranian people, mostly the young one, to organize candlelight parties in the memory of the victims in New York and queuing at the gates of the Swiss embassy in Tehran, that represents the American interests in Iran, to sign the condolences book opened there.

Mr. Ahmad Bourqani, a member of the Majles presidential board also signed the book on behalf of the Iranian parliament and its leadership while the Mayor and the Head of Tehran’s City Council sent messages of support and mourning to their counterparts in New York.

However, a second candlelight party organised Wednesday in a Tehran square was attacked by the Law Enforcement Forces on orders from officials, saying the event lacked proper authorisations.

Some participants, many of them young boys and girls, were seen beaten up by plainclothes police and security men and a Dutch photographer was arrested and taken to custody, where his films were confiscated, eyewitnesses reported from the scene.

"Iran is the only country in the Muslim world where its people are genuinely friendly to the Americans, aspire to normal and good relationship with the Americans and even with Israel but its regime is against the United States, while, in other Muslim nations, the governments, except in a few, like Iraq, are favourable to Washington while their people are staunchly anti-American and anti-Israeli", noted one Iranian observers.

Ayatollah Montazeri told his followers that Islam was against terrorism and killing innocent people and at the same token, told the American leaders not "to mistake a few terrorists with the mass of Muslims".

"Although some uses the faith for their own sinful actions, but in Islam, terrorism is an unpardonable sin and therefore, that operations in the United States are against the doctrines of Islam", Mr. Montazeri was quoted as telling his followers by the Persian service of the Prague-based Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.

At the same, Mr. Montazeri warned the Americans against invading Afghanistan.

"Attacking Afghanistan is a great catastrophe and could well become another Vietnam for America", he pointed out, adding that one has to attack the "roots of the ill", before accusing Israel for "abusing" from the present circumstances and atmosphere in increasing its attacks on the Palestinians, "oblivin of the fact that no regime based on ruthless would last".

With American Administration insisting on getting Mr. Ben Laden "dead or alive", as President Bush has said recently, Iranian leadership is divided on how to address the situation, as it has no relations with either Washington or Kabol.

While many experts, scholars both inside and outside the country, and even officials identified with the reformists urges the President to take "bold" actions and profit from the occasion to start dialogue with Washington, others, mostly among the ruling conservatives would prefer a "wait and see" policy while drumming on their anti-Americanism.

In an article written in the pro-reform daily "No Rooz", Mr. Abdollah Ramezanpoor urged President Khatami to "fully activate" Iranian diplomacy and in order to avert another debacle, establish personal contacts with leaders of major European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries as well as with the Chinese, Russians and Americans.

But the daily "Resalat" that speaks for the conservatives and the religious oligarchy criticized Mr. Khatami’s message of sympathy to the American people, describing it as "hastily and inopportune".

For its part, "Keyhan", that speaks for the hard-line intelligence community close to Ayatollah Khameneh’i In its editorial accused President George W. Bush of "planting the seeds of revenge against Muslims", and added: "The US and the west should be made to understand that war with Muslims would not be an easy and cheap war".

The fear for many in Iran is to see the country encircled by America, in case Washington attacks Afghanistan, leading an international coalition like the one that participated in the war against Iraq", said the Iranian analyst.

"With the exception of our borders with parts of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Americans are at our frontiers with Azerbaijan, Turkey and in the Persian Gulf. If they succeed to topple the Taleban and replace them with another government of their liking in Kabol, an operation that supposes the concrete and close co-operation from Pakistan, they would also be sitting at these borders as well, thus surrounding Iran. And this give shivers to our ruling ayatollahs", he added.

Summing up this antagonism, the pro-conservative, English-language daily "Tehran Times" on Wednesday called for adopting a "sensible policy" towards Afghanistan to secure Iran's sociopolitical interests.

"In many events that took place in the past two decades in the region, if Iran's national interests had been prioritised and if other irrelevant issues had not been given too much weight and if the diplomatic apparatus had not been so feeble as to reduce Iran's status to a mere spectator, maybe today the geopolitical map of the region would be in favor of Iran in a way that befits the aspirations of our great nation", the daily said, criticising the ruling ayatollahs who place their personal and private interests over those of the nation.

Like all key decisions, Ayatollah Khameneh’i decides important foreign policy matters within his own office, away from the Foreign Ministry and the government.

Regretting that it was through such grave diplomatic blunders that Iran "practically" surrendered the key to many Central Asian republics to a "minor rival such as Turkey" and hence opened the way to some "non-regional adversaries", meaning the United States and Israel, the paper said the "inconstant and often contradictory policies adopted towards Afghanistan seriously jeopardised our national interests".

"The increasing tensions over the legal status of the Caspian Sea in the north, a state headed by Saddam (Husein) in the west, and the disputes over the three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf are all suggestive of the extent of the animosity existing against Islamic Iran", Tehran Times pointed out, adding that after "numerous mistakes and misjudgments", now Iran has the opportunity to resolve the threat it is facing from its eastern borders "once and for all".

Reminding that the Pakistan government has "deceived" Iran "many times" in the past, the paper urged Iranian leaders not to let the Pakistani and their military government "once again" impose itself as the only major player on the Afghanistan scene.

Pakistan is the main supporter of the Afghan ruling Taleban and without its vital logistic, military and financial assistance; the Taleban could not govern the country for long, experts assure.

"The clear green light given by the Pakistanis to Powell is an obvious move in this direction", "Tehran Times" noted, suggesting the Iranian government to replace a "chaotic U.S. campaign" with possible dire consequences for the region and the entire world by legitimate international organisations.

"If the international community is convinced by the evidence that incriminates Bin Laden in the attack against America, Iran should adopt an "active role" in the international campaign and "refrain from the kind of inert and sluggish approach that it demonstrated in the Persian Gulf war", the daily added.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi agreed, telling journalists on Wednesday that "Iran supports a United Nations-led retaliatory move and fight against terrorism", when asked to clarify Iran's position on a possible strike against neighbouring Afghanistan.

"Through its active involvement in an internationally sanctioned campaign, the Islamic Republic of Iran could achieve the following goals: a) It would effectively defuse the Zionists' negative propaganda against Iran and the Islamic world. b) Iran's contribution to a U.N.-led campaign would strengthen the bargaining power of the legal government of Afghanistan (the Northern Alliance), which would also serve our strategic interests. c) Such a move would deal a severe blow to the influential U.S.-based Zionist lobbies that have persistently tried to endanger our national interests", "Tehran Times" wrote. ENDS IRAN US EXPLOSIONS 20901