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Iraq/Iran: Old Foes Explore Better Ties As Washington Says Both Are 'Axis of Evil'

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Iraq and Iran remain separated by deep differences almost 15 years after the end of their 1980-88 war. But both sides have recently begun exploring ways to ease tensions. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, their tentative rapprochement is largely motivated by their inimical relations with the United States, whose president this week labeled both states an "axis of evil."

Prague, 30 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush used the strongest terms he has employed yet to describe Tehran and Baghdad when he called both -- plus North Korea -- the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address yesterday.

That description significantly changed the tone of oratory used by the preceding Clinton administration, which long termed Iran and Iraq "rogue states" before shifting to the milder characterization of "states of concern."

Calling Iran and Iraq developers of weapons of mass destruction and supporters of terrorism, Bush said: "Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade."

Bush also promised that Washington will deal with all states that have weapons of mass destruction programs that might endanger the U.S. "The United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

The U.S. president's warnings to Iran and Iraq -- which stopped short of referring to any military action against them -- immediately drew strong responses from both states.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi denounced the statements as "arrogant" and were intended only to divert public opinion from what he called Israeli atrocities against innocent Palestinians.

Baghdad accused Washington itself of terrorism. Salem al-Qubaissi, head of Iraq's parliamentary commission on Arab and international relations, charged the U.S. and Israel with what he called state terrorism against peoples and governments that do not surrender to U.S. wishes.

This ratcheting-up of hostile language comes after Washington has increasingly widened the definition of its war on terrorism in the months following the September attacks. That definition has moved from the need to dismantle the Al-Qaeda network to the need to deal with states that shield terrorists to, now, warnings that hostile nations with mass-destruction weapons must be stopped.

As Bush has broadened the war on terror, Iraq and Iran have reacted to the developments with heightened diplomatic activity of their own. Baghdad has launched a new drive to win popular Arab support against the UN sanctions regime and against any possible U.S. strikes against Iraq. And Tehran has continued to press its argument that only the UN is qualified to define terrorism or lead a global war against it.

At the same time, Iraq and Iran have taken new steps to ease long-standing tensions between them. Those steps include Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri visiting Tehran over the weekend to meet Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and other top officials. After the meetings, the two states vowed to resolve outstanding humanitarian issues, including the fate of thousands of prisoners of war that each side accuses the other of holding since their 1980-88 war. Sabri also said Iran would resume direct flights to Baghdad after a break of more than 20 years.

Analysts say efforts by Iraq and Iran at rapprochement may be intended to send a signal to Washington that threats against them will only complicate America's security situation in the Gulf. Traditionally, that situation has seen the Gulf's two superpowers -- Iran and Iraq -- at odds while the Arab Gulf states rely upon the West for security and try to play off Baghdad and Tehran diplomatically. Any change in that formula would likely be seen as very worrisome in Washington.

Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, recently told Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh that Baghdad hopes warming relations with Iran will help slow U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq.

"I think that the timing has to do with the fact that Iraq is trying to move out of its regional isolation and to prevent an American attack or a new front against terrorism being implemented against Baghdad, so that Iraq has an interest in opening up toward its neighbors and trying to reduce its sense of isolation."

Chubin says Tehran wants to send a similar message to Washington.

"Iran wants to exploit any flexibility that Iraq might show because of Iraq's current predicament. [And] I think the Iranians must consider that they may at some point become a target [in the war on terror], or at least become the object of diplomatic pressure. I don't see a military attack on Iran, but I think the Iranians would like to show the Americans that they have options, including cooperation with Iraq."

Still, the analyst says that despite their recent steps to improve relations, Iran and Iraq remain separated by deep political differences that put severe limits on the extent of any rapprochement they are likely to achieve.

One problem is the fact that each side harbors the other state's main armed opposition group. Iraq shelters the Mujahedin-i Khalq, while Iran harbors the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Another difference exists over oil smuggling from Iraq, which Iran in the past has aided but in recent years has obstructed by impounding smugglers' vessels. U.S. Admiral Charles W. Moore, the head of the multinational interdiction force which patrols the Gulf against Iraqi oil smuggling, told the UN Security Council in November that since last spring, very little illicit oil has moved down the waterway because of Iran's cooperation.

But Chubin says the biggest obstacle to any close Iranian-Iraqi relationship is likely to be Tehran's deep mistrust of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

"It is inconceivable to me that one can depend prudently, and seriously rely, on a full peace with Iraq as long as this madman Saddam Hussein is in Iraq. And I think the Iranian policymakers know very well that the nature of the Iraqi regime doesn't allow them to be very safe as long as Saddam Hussein is there."

Analysts say both Iran and Iraq in the past have used their disputes as levers against each other in an effort to gain the upper hand in their long-standing rivalry. Similarly, they are able to temporarily agree to reduce their tensions to gain a stronger hand against a third party, such as Washington.

But even as Iran and Iraq recently have chosen that second option -- reducing tensions -- there are signs that beneath the diplomacy each side remains highly skeptical of the other's sincerity.

Some of that suspicion surfaced prominently in Iranian papers following Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri's recent visit to Tehran.

The Iranian newspaper "Abrar-Eghtesadi" quoted Masoud Dehnamaki, a well-known conservative journalist, as saying that "Iraq has been threatened and is isolated, and therefore it is looking for political capital."

And the Iranian daily "Javan" warned that "it is surprising that Iran is seriously considering Iraq's green light. Iran should act cautiously and consider this as a mere international political gesture. It's Iraq's sheer geopolitical situation that has made Iraq's government want to resume a friendship with Iran."

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