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Iran: Tensions With U.S. Worsen Over Iraq, Though Efforts Made To Ease Pressure

  • Charles Recknagel

Differences over Iraq are heightening tensions between the United States and Iran. Washington is warning Tehran not to encourage anti-American feelings among some Iraqi Shi'a groups as the U.S. begins the difficult task of administering Iraq. And Tehran is urging Washington to leave Iraq at once and let Iraqis decide their own future. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at how problems over Iraq are likely to affect relations between the two states.

Prague, 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of Washington's toppling of Saddam Hussein, both Washington and Tehran have new reasons to worry about one other.

One of Washington's most pressing fears is that Iran will try to use its connections to Iraq's majority Shi'a population to sabotage U.S. efforts to administer the country.

U.S. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer voiced Washington's concerns clearly when he warned Iran last week not to interfere in Iraq's future: "We have made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside organization's interference in Iraq, interfering with their road to democracy. Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shi'a population clearly falls into that category and that is a position that we have made clear to the government of Iran."

Washington has been angered by a steady migration of members of the Iraqi-Shi'a group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) into Iraq from Iran. SCIRI, an exile group based in Tehran, has a force of some 10,000 fighters that long waged a guerrilla war against Hussein's regime.

Tehran denies it is interfering in postwar Iraq. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said late last week that his government has encouraged Iraqis "to put aside violence and think about unity and also move toward forming a democratic and free government."

He added: "It is interesting that the United States has occupied Iraq and is now accusing Iraq's neighbors of interfering in Iraq's internal affairs."

Analysts say it is not yet clear just how much Iran wants to, or can, directly interfere in post-Hussein Iraq. Many say Iran has a strong geostrategic interest in trying to shape events there, but that there are strong limits on its ability to do so.

Iran shares religious ties with Iraq's Shi'a community because scholars from either side have traditionally moved back and forth between the main Shi'a study centers of both countries.

The late father of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, studied for years in Iraq's holy city of Al-Najaf. Similarly, the would-be father of any Islamic revolution in Iraq, SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, is based in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

But the two communities are divided by rivalries over which is to be pre-eminent in the Muslim Shi'ite world. They equally are divided by national enmities, including the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran, that often supersede coreligionist feelings.

Anoshiravan Ehteshami, head of the Center of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Durham in England, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda recently that the Iraqi Shi'a community feels very distinct from that of Iran.

"I very much doubt that the Iranian government is trying to meddle, to establish a theocratic regime in Iraq through official channels," Ehteshami said. "The Qom seminary cannot compete with Najaf's philosophical school of thought and its freedom of expression, and so would feel threatened by it. The Iraqi Shi'ites movement [Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah, or Islamic Call] existed long before the Islamic Republic of Iran. It has always been a political force."

Any success Iran enjoys within the Iraqi Shi'ite community is likely to depend on the ability of SCIRI to build a strong political base in Iraq after years of operating from exile. The group has long called for a theocracy in Iraq, though recently leaders have suggested they would be willing to work initially within a national parliamentary system.

Some other Iraqi Shi'a leaders who never went into exile have also said they regard Iran's theocracy as a model for any future Iraqi government. They include the son of the highly respected late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, assassinated by presumed agents of Hussein in 1999. But other Iraqi Shi'a leaders, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are believed to favor keeping the clergy out of politics.

Just as Washington worries about Tehran's intentions in Iraq, Tehran sees plenty of reasons to worry about its own security after America so easily defeated their mutual enemy, Saddam Hussein.

Iranian leaders can't help but remember that Iraq is just one of three states that U.S. President George W. Bush labeled part of an "axis of evil" that directly threatens the U.S. The other two states are Iran itself and North Korea.

That may make some in Tehran fear Washington's victory in Iraq will only encourage Washington to take a more aggressive posture toward Iran. Washington accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and of supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East, charges Tehran denies.

At the same time, the U.S. victory poses Iranian leaders with the immediate problem of having a new pro-U.S. state on its border. The Iraq war follows Washington's toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan a year and a half ago, and Washington's successful enlistment of many Central Asian states into the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Analysts say tensions over Iraq have the possibility of escalating beyond a war of words into a military confrontation. But they say there also are signs that Iran will try to keep the argument from spinning out of control.

William Samii, a regional analyst for RFE/RL, says Iran feels encircled and would like to weaken the American hold on states around it. But he says Tehran is too pragmatic in its foreign policy to provoke a showdown with Washington.

"Iran does not like being surrounded by American allies or what it sees as American client governments," Samii said. "This is a nightmare for Iran. But Tehran is pragmatic, and other than the usual bluster that the Revolutionary Guards are ready at any time to defend Iran, there is a realistic sense that, militarily, they cannot withstand the U.S., and this is a confrontation they want to avoid."

The analyst says Tehran already has demonstrated its pragmatic side regarding Afghanistan, where an allied coalition toppled the Taliban regime -- another mutual enemy -- and rooted out the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

"Iran did not like the U.S. action in Afghanistan any more than it liked the war in Iraq," Samii said. "But it has been pragmatic about the results and about American charges it is meddling. When Washington accused Tehran of giving refuge to fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, the Iranian parliament called on the government to look into the charges to assure that was not happening. That showed a willingness to put curbs on foreign policy in order to not invite American attacks on Iran itself."

Iran may have shown its willingness to put limits on the current tensions over Iraq when a top conservative official recently suggested Iran consider holding a popular referendum on what its relations with America should be.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the conservative-dominated Expediency Council, said such a referendum could be held if permitted by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader has not responded publicly to the idea.

Washington has not officially commented on the statement by Rafsanjani.

For its part, the U.S. has said it is not planning long-term military bases in Iraq, an arrangement that would particularly alarm Iran. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said early last week: "I have never, that I can recall, heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed in any meeting."

(RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin helped with translations for this story.)

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