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Iran/Iraq: Tensions Linger Beneath Iranian FM's Visit To Baghdad

Foreign Minister Kharrazi As Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi arrived in Baghdad on 17 May to stress Iran's support for a stable, unified Iraq, Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television station was broadcasting footage showing desecrated Korans strewn across a mosque floor in Iraq.

Playing on allegations made recently in "Newsweek" that U.S. soldiers desecrated a Koran at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the news channel claimed that the footage was taken following a U.S. military raid on an Iraqi mosque in March.

The mood in Baghdad, however, was one of rapprochement. Iraqi leaders praised Kharrazi's "landmark" visit, stressing the need to build on brotherly relations with Iran.

The position of the transitional government is starkly different from the position taken by the interim government towards its eastern neighbor. During Iraq's interim administration, Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan routinely criticized Iran for interfering in Iraq's internal affairs on a variety of levels including the regime's purported financial support of political parties and its funding of the insurgency.

Historic Visit

As Iraq's leadership was quick to point out, Kharrazi is the first minister from an Arab or Islamic neighbor to visit Iraq. From that perspective, the visit can be viewed as historic for Iraqis, who fought an eight-year war with Iran that left some 1 million people dead. In addition, many of Iraq's Shi'ite leaders --including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari -- spent years of exile in Iran, and are said to be on good terms with the Iranian regime.

During his visit, Kharrazi stressed to reporters Iran's support for a stable, unified Iraq. "We believe that security on the border with Iraq is security for the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. He also said that Iran has gone to great lengths to secure its border with Iraq over the past two years. "Had the Islamic Republic of Iran exploited the situation in Iraq to interfere in Iraq's affairs and allow terrorists to enter Iraq from Iran, the situation in Iraq would have been much worse," he said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari defended Iran, telling reporters: "We do not deny that infiltrations occur but we cannot say that these operations take place with the approval of the [Iranian] government." He acknowledged, however, that the transitional government views some of Iran's interests in Iraq to be "illegitimate," but cautioned that the Iraqi government is "against anything that harms relations between the two peoples and countries."

Iran's Southern Influence

Despite Iran's relations with the United States, Kharrazi said that "we consider it our duty to help the people of Iraq." In previous statements he has espoused the viewpoint that the United States intends to harm Iraq and the region -- a viewpoint that many analysts believe aims to sow internal Iraqi discord.

Iranian presidential frontrunner Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani elucidated this position when he told a group of Iraqi Assyrians in Tehran on 16 May that "The colonialists and the Zionists are sowing the seeds of discord to rationalize their presence in the region." The U.S. intention, he claimed, is to "seek inroads to the region's resources" through its domination of Iraq.

While both al-Zebari and Kharrazi stressed the need for noninterference in Iraq's internal affairs, no mention was made of widespread reports of Iranian militias ruling the streets of Al-Basrah and other southern cities. Nor was there any mention of the growing drug trade that flows from Afghanistan through Iran to Iraq. As London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 12 April: "An infiltrator from Iran...needs only to cross a small land barrier in the Al-Shalamjah area to get to Iraqi territory. Alternatively, this infiltrator can go through the palm orchards and then cross into Iraqi territory. If the infiltrator wants to use the river, he can use a small boat to cross the Shatt Al-Arab to be in Iraq."
"Had the Islamic Republic of Iran exploited the situation in Iraq to interfere in Iraq's affairs and allow terrorists to enter Iraq from Iran, the situation in Iraq would have been much worse." -- Kamal Kharrazi

The report illustrates the level of Iranian penetration in Al-Basrah, and substantiates earlier reports by RFE/RL that Basrans are fearful to speak against the growing Iranian presence on the streets of Iraq's second city. In addition to a thriving smuggling trade, Iran has taken what the daily calls "humanitarian steps" to spread its political influence while distributing much-needed aid to the elderly and poor, much like the tactics successfully employed by the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas to win political support in Gaza. Iran has allocated $1 billion in aid that "is meant to implement projects that reinforce its intervention in Iraqi affairs," the daily reports.

Other media reports, including a 14 May article in Baghdad's "Al-Furat," talk of armed militias seizing the homes of Iraqis and redistributing them to Iranian families, in what the author calls "an organized process by Iranians to occupy Iraqi towns under various pretexts."

Iraqi Islamic Party member Iyad al-Azzi told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in early April that Iran and Syria "have plans to further drown the United States in the Iraqi quagmire at the expense of [Iraq's] security, blood, and citizens" in order to divert U.S. attention away from those states.

While the transitional government has claimed that it has no intention of duplicating an Iranian-style regime in Iraq, it appears to be taking the high road at least publicly in its dealings with Iran. As transitional President Jalal Talabani told Jordan's Television 1 on 8 May: "We should not forget that Iran and Syria had thankfully assisted the forces ruling in Iraq now when they were in the opposition. Therefore, even if there are differences with these two countries, we seek to solve them in a brotherly manner. We do not want to export these differences to the press or television. We will exert efforts to solve differences cordially and through direct contact if such differences exist."

Both Iran and southern Iraqis might interpret that position as tacit approval of Iranian domination in the south. Like Hamas in Gaza, Iran's control over southern Iraq could slowly solidify -- and later prove difficult to remove.