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Iraq: As Shi'ites Rise, Washington Acknowledges Talks With Iran

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Some Iraqi Shiites have been calling for an Islamic state similar to Iran. Washington says it won't allow such a development, but acknowledged yesterday that it is quietly talking with Tehran, which has close ties to key Iraqi Shi'ite groups.

Washington, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States approach to Iran after the Iraq war appears caught between a desire to promote change in Tehran and yet avoid trouble from Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims with close ties to Iran.

Freed from 30 years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Shi'ites are enjoying a revival that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago, taking part in a long-banned pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala and openly protesting the American presence in Iraq.

Many of them, especially those with ties to Tehran -- such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- are calling for Iranian-inspired Islamic rule to take over in Baghdad.

Some say they are willing to consider violent means to achieve their goals should Washington fail to satisfy them.

To be sure, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush rejects any notion of a theocratic regime taking root in Baghdad. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told a briefing yesterday:

"Well, Iran, certainly, is not an example of a democracy or a country in which people are free. So, certainly, we want to make certain that out of the liberation of Iraq, it is not replaced by another different type of dictatorship."

But how to balance that position with the possible need to work with Iran, the most populous Shi'ite Muslim country, to avert possible unrest among radical Iraqi Shi'ites, has put Washington in a tricky spot.

On one hand, Bush has said that one goal of the war in Iraq was to pressure other autocratic regimes and to unleash a democratic wave of change in the Middle East. On the other hand, analysts say the war may have given Iran more leverage vis-a-vis the United States than it previously had, as least for now.

Complicating matters is that Washington has not had diplomatic ties with Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iranian students held U.S. Embassy personnel hostage for more than a year.

Judith Kipper is a Middle East expert with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. Kipper tells RFE/RL that the U.S. has clearly competing interests in Iraq with Iran, which after years of hostility with Baghdad would now like to see an Iraqi government that is friendly to its interests.

Kipper says Iran is therefore eager to see American influence on any future Iraqi government kept to a minimum.

She said: "At the same time, the U.S. wants a secular government in Iraq, which may compete with the view of the hard-liners and the religious establishment in Iran, but coincides with the view of the reformers in Iran -- that they want a secular government where the rights of the Shi'a and all the citizens of Iraq are taken into account because that would promote democratization in Iran."

But how can Washington achieve that without unduly antagonizing Iran -- and radical Iraqi Shi'ites -- in the process?

Recently, there have been reports that the U.S. is engaged in quiet talks with Iranian officials. Fleischer himself confirmed yesterday that the U.S. does have "channels where we talk to the Iranians."

Moreover, senior Iranian figures, such as influential former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have suggested that resuming ties with the U.S. should be considered.

Kipper says such talks are in U.S. interests. The implication is that a deal could be worked out that would satisfy both countries and avoid undue confrontation.

"They (Iranians) have the capacity to make trouble," Kipper said. "So it's extremely, extremely important for the U.S. to take into consideration the interests of all of the neighbors of Iraq. We have relations with all of them except Iran, which is probably the single most important neighbor, and that is unfortunate. It is definitely a handicap in terms of moving forward, trying to achieve stability in Iraq."

But any diplomatic overtures to Iran, Syria, North Korea, or similar regimes are coming under intense criticism by the right wing in Washington.

Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, launched a scathing attack on the State Department in a speech yesterday to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Gingrich said U.S. foreign policy over the last six months has been marked by six months of failed diplomacy and one month of ringing military success. Now, he said, the failed diplomacy is beginning anew. As an example, he pointed to Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent decision to visit Syria next month despite recent intense American pressure on Damascus.

According to Gingrich, the Pentagon should continue to use its military victory in Iraq to put more pressure on dictators in the Middle East.

Raymond Tanter agrees. A former Pentagon official and member of former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, Tanter tells RFE/RL:

"The Office of the Secretary of Defense -- OSD -- would like to see regime change in Pyongyang, in Tehran, in Damascus, and in Tripoli. And the way you effect regime change is not to cut a deal that props up dictatorships but to use the military success of bringing down the regime in Baghdad as a means of tipping over the tottering dictators in other rogue states."

How the U.S. could increase pressure on Tehran and at the same time placate Iraq's more radical Shi'ite elements is unclear.

To be sure, Iraqi Shi'ites are anything but politically uniform. Kipper and other analysts say a power struggle is already under way in Iraq between secular Shi'ites and more radical Islamists.

One idea that has been floated is that Washington could help empower moderate Iraqi Shi'ites and hopefully satisfy most of them. But others say anyone seen as being backed by Washington could lack legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis. Moreover, it remains to be seen how popular radical Iraqi Shi'ites are.

Some see signs they could wield a great deal of influence, pointing to the fact that some southern cities and one of Baghdad's poorer neighborhoods have already fallen under the de facto rule of Islamic clerics.

But other analysts warn that however popular they may or may not be, ties between them and Iran's religious hard-liners should not be exaggerated.

Shireen Hunter directs the Islamic program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She tells RFE/RL that radical Shi'ites in Iraq may work with Washington, depending on what kind of governing set-up the U.S. establishes in postwar Iraq.

"If they felt that that set-up does not serve their interests, they might be troublesome," Hunter said. "But I think that if, indeed, the U.S. offers them a deal that they cannot refuse, I would almost make a bet that they will accept that, even if that meant antagonizing the Iranians."

Such a compromise, Hunter adds, would be more favorable to Tehran than the previous Iraqi regime.