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Iran/Iraq: U.S. Talks Unlikely To End Tehran's 'Soft Power' In Iraq

Iraqi expats voting in Tehran in Iraq's December 2005 legislative elections (epa) The much-heralded Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq, to which Tehran agreed in mid-March, may result in an end to direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. But even if Iran ends its use of direct means -- such as the provision of arms and money to militias -- its use of indirect means, or "soft power," to influence Iraqi affairs seems likely to continue.

The Iran-U.S. talks have not begun yet but already they seem to be dead in the water. One reason for this is that the talks are not supported by all Iraqis. They were called for by the leader of one of the country's main Shi'ite parties -- Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the United Iraqi Alliance -- but another Shi'ite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has spoken out against them. In addition, Iraqi Sunnis oppose the talks because they resent marginalization in their country's affairs and fear that official Iranian involvement will contribute to this process.

Talks A Long Time Coming

"The Guardian" commented from London on March 27 that following complaints from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the talks must wait. The Iraqis are demanding that representatives from their government participate, and this cannot happen until a new Iraqi government is formed. It has been more than three months since Iraq's parliamentary elections, but the various factions have so far been unable to come up with a broadly acceptable government list. A particular sticking point is whether Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, a Shi'ite, should continue in office.

When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first called for U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq in October 2005, she made it clear that the objective was to discuss alleged Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. U.S. officials since then have charged repeatedly that this interference has not subsided.

U.S. Repeats The Charges

"Iran seeks a Shi'a-dominated and unified Iraq but also wants the U.S. to experience continued setbacks in our efforts to promote democracy and stability," U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said in late February in Congressional testimony. "Accordingly, Iran provides guidance and training to select Iraqi Shi'ite political groups and weapons and training to Shi'ite militant groups to enable anti-coalition attacks."

The same day, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples said: "Money, weapons, and foreign fighters supporting terrorism move into Iraq, primarily through Syria and Iran. We believe Iran has provided lethal aid to Iraqi Shi'ite insurgents."

Iran Responds With Its Own Accusations

Tehran rejects such accusations and attributes violence in Iraq to U.S.-led coalition forces. After the late February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, for example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the occupation forces and "the Zionists deployed in Iraq" are responsible.

The next week, Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani delivered a sermon about the bombers' desires.

"Perhaps their most important aim is to weaken the solidarity that is gradually shaping in the world of Islam," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. "Because the Muslims feel that global arrogance, America in particular, intends to create problems for the Muslims by promoting a Greater Middle East plan.... The main objective of the Greater Middle East plan is to create a rift among Muslims, weaken the Islamic world, and force it to surrender."

Iran's Real Role Uncertain

Some outside observers disbelieve U.S. statements and doubt media reports of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Some Iraqis also reject claims of an Iranian hand in the violence. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, for example, told CNN on January 26 that such claims are unsubstantiated.

"They always accuse Iran of such things, and they told us about such things even from the first month that we've been here until now," he said. "And we were always asking for evidence, but nobody came with evidence."

It is difficult to verify most of the accusations, counteraccusations, and denials. However, one significant aspect of Iran's effort to influence Iraqi affairs is information operations using broadcast media, and this can be verified by anybody with satellite television reception. Two Iranian Arabic-language television stations can be viewed in Iraq terrestrially and by satellite -- Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar.

The 'Soft Power' Of Broadcasting

Al-Alam is an official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting channel that went on the air in March 2003. It portrays U.S.-led coalition forces and their activities in a negative light, comparing them to Israeli activities in Palestine. It is an important means by which Iranian views are conveyed to the Iraqi people. Al-Kawthar is the new name for Al-Sahar, another official Iranian station that went on the air in 1997. Al-Kawthar's news reporting is fairly neutral on Iraqi affairs, but it is as hostile to Israel as Al-Alam is, referring to Israel as "the usurping entity" and discussing "the Palestinians' usurped rights." Al-Kawthar's programming on the United States is negative, too, and it is supportive of Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

The Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq may eventually get under way, and there is a remote possibility that direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics will end. However, it is very unlikely that Iran will end its effort to influence Iraqi affairs through broadcasting and other applications of "soft power." Tehran's interest in shaping developments to its west and its desire to undermine the United States indirectly and at a relatively low cost to itself preclude it from adopting a disinterested approach to what happens in Iraq.

Iraq And Iran

Iraq And Iran

Iranian Shi'a protesting the Golden Mosque Bombing in Iraq on February 24

WHAT IS GOING ON? On March 8, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion on relations between Iraq and Iran. Although most analysts agree that Iran has been actively involved in Iraq since the U.S.-led military operation to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they continue to debate the nature, extent, and intent of that involvement.
The RFE/RL briefing featured WAYNE WHITE, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, and A. WILLIAM SAMII, RFE/RL's regional analyst for Iran and editor of the "RFE/RL Iran Report."


Listen to the complete RFE/RL briefing (about 75 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Iran/Iraq: Bilateral Ties Improving Despite U.S. Worries

Renewed Speculation About Tehran And Instability In Iraq

Iran/Iraq: Neighbors Mending Ties, But Outstanding Issues Remain


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran. RFE/RL's coverage of Iraq.