Prague, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian delegation headed by the Foreign Ministry's director for Persian Gulf affairs, Hossein Sadeqi, headed to the holy Iraqi city of Al-Najaf today to help resolve a standoff between the U.S.-led coalition and radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
An aide to al-Sadr told French news agency AFP that the cleric welcomes the Iranian initiative because it comes from an Islamic country. He said al-Sadr is ready to meet the Iranian diplomats.
Al-Sadr is the leader of a Shi'a militia that this month has led a violent revolt against coalition forces in areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq.
The Iranian delegation might also attempt to help secure the release of a number of foreign hostages recently taken in Iraq.
The five-member delegation first arrived in Baghdad yesterday for talks with coalition officials and Iraqi politicians and religious figures.
Reports say British officials first invited the Iranian diplomats to Iraq and that the United States gave its consent. Iranian officials have said that if Washington wants to achieve stability in Iraq, it should consult Iraq's neighbors and seek their assistance.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday said the United States had not invited Iranian officials to mediate in Iraq, but said Washington has indicated to Tehran that it can play a positive role in easing tensions in the country.
"We made clear to Iran, as we have made clear to other [of Iraq's] neighbors, that all countries need to try to play a helpful role in stabilizing the situation, do what they can to stabilize the situation, and avoid any sort of interference or any actions that might increase tensions. That has been made clear to Iran, I'd say, all along, but also recently," Boucher said.
"Naturally, there was a request for our help in improving the situation in Iraq and solving the crisis, and we are making efforts in this regard." Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi
Yesterday in Tehran, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Iran and the United States have been exchanging correspondence over the crisis in Iraq.
"Naturally, there was a request for our help in improving the situation in Iraq and solving the crisis, and we are making efforts in this regard," Kharrazi said yesterday.
U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of trying to meddle in Iraq's internal affairs. Iran has rejected the accusations.
On 12 April, the head of U.S. forces in the Gulf region, General John Abizaid, said Iran and Syria have been involved in what he called "unhelpful actions" in Iraq. But he acknowledged that there are elements in Iran who are trying to limit the influence of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Iranian officials have distanced themselves from the cleric.
On 10 April, Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami indirectly criticized the insurgency led by al-Sadr. He said Iran "considers any policy that would intensify the crisis in Iraq and jeopardize the establishment of security to be harmful for Shi'a and Islam."
Gary Sick is a professor of Middle East politics at New York's Columbia University and was a top White House aide for Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and ensuing hostage crisis. Sick said that, despite U.S. criticism of Tehran, Washington has been relying on Iran's assistance in Iraq.
"There have always been two strains to U.S. policy. Just as Iran often seems to follow policies where the one part of the government seems to differ from what the other part of the government is doing, we see the same thing in the United States very much. We have, from the beginning, in fact, relied on Iran and its assistance, especially in the south and its relations with the Shi'a, to maintain peace and order and to lend support to a more moderate perspective in Iraqi politics. At the same time, almost without stop, we have been criticizing Iran's activities in Iraq," Sick said.
Sick said the United States has been maintaining indirect contacts with Iran through British officials and also through members of the Iraqi Governing Council, some of whom have made several official trips to Tehran.
"If you really want to work out cooperation on the ground, you have to do it in person. It's very difficult to send a letter and say, 'Why don't you do such-and-such,' and the other side comes back and says, 'Why don't you do such-and-such.' You really need to sit down and talk to each other to do that," Sick said.
Sick said Tehran's role in Iraq cannot be ignored, given Tehran's influence among Iraq's Shi'a and its past experiences with Baghdad.
"If Iran wishes to cooperate with the United States, it's going to be helpful. If Iran decides to openly oppose the United States, that is going to be very unhelpful from the U.S. point of view and could, in fact, be disastrous. So it seems to me that developing a working relationship -- it doesn't mean that the countries have to reestablish diplomatic relations, it doesn't mean that they have to express love for each other -- it basically means working together on issues that are of mutual significance. What happens in Iraq is tremendously important to Iran, and it's tremendously important to the United States," Sick said.
Iran and the United States cut diplomatic ties following the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Since then, the two countries have communicated through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. interests in Iran. Diplomats from the two sides have reportedly held talks in Geneva over the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi said talks with the United States have stopped.
"We have had negotiations in the past, but they were stopped," Kharrazi said. "We are of the sentiment that these negotiations are pointless, because the Americans make promises but they do not keep them."
Meanwhile, an Iranian diplomat -- Khalil Naimi, first secretary of the Iranian mission in Baghdad -- was shot dead in the capital by unknown assailants. It is unclear whether Naimi's murder is connected to Tehran's mediation efforts in Iraq.