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Iran: A Suspicious Tehran To Attend Iraqi Summit

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki (file photo) (Photolur) MEXICO CITY, May 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran says it will attend the regional Iraqi security conference to be held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 3-4, but only to discuss Iraq-related affairs.

But it is the prospect of an unofficial meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki makes the meeting in Egypt much more interesting.

No Contact Please

Tehran's official line is that Iran is attending for Iraq's sake and has no interest in talking to the United States.

Iran does not wish to talk to the United States, officials say, but newspapers have given front-page coverage to Iran's decision to attend the conference and the fact that Mottaki and Rice will be at the same venue.

A deputy head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, told ILNA on April 29 that parliamentarians prefer Iran to have no contacts with "America, which is a terrorist government that kidnaps diplomats and has forcibly occupied a country."

Another committee member, Suleiman Jafarzadeh, told ISNA the same day however that Iran would undermine its regional role if it did not attend. Committee chief Alaeddin Borujerdi told ISNA on April 29: "We are attending on Iraq's insistence and to defend ourselves."

The editor of the conservative daily "Kayhan," Hussein Shariatmadari, told ISNA on April 30 that Iran was previously reluctant to attend the meeting, suspicious of its goals and doubting that it would benefit the Iraqis.

Shariatmadari said the United States is trying to involve regional actors like Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in order to reduce the role of Iraqis in resolving their national crisis.

The Shi'a Connection

References by some Iranian politicians to the people of Iraq often carry an implicit assumption that all Iraqis are effectively equivalent to the Shi'a, who constitute the majority population. This majority would -- unless thwarted by the machinations of world powers and their regional allies like Jordan or the Gulf coast countries -- lead Iraq in a "natural" direction toward becoming an Islamic and Shi'a republic enjoying cordial relations with Iran.

This perspective may be one reason for persistent suspicions of an international conference on Iraq or what Iranian politicians intermittently describe as the "internationalization" of the Iraqi problem.

Iranian politicians keep saying: let the Iraqis decide their own fate -- which effectively means let Iraq go whither its majority (the Shi'a) should take it. Shariatmadari told ISNA that a multilateral conference on Iraq was intended to reduce the role of "centers...naturally involved in" Iraq's affairs, which may be a reference to Shi'a.

Like other politicians, Shariatmadari said Iran is attending in response to requests by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and to thwart the "negative effects of this conference as desired by America."

He added that Mottaki might meet with Rice and even discuss other matters on the sidelines of the conference, but this was more inevitable than being "significant" or desirable. "Basically Iran does not intend to negotiate with America" and is not "trying to prepare for it."

Arab Participation

The Fars news agency cited Tehran-based observer Saadullah Zarei as saying on April 30 that the conference will seek to change the "balance of power in Iraq" and find an "Arab" solution to Iraq's problems, reducing the roles of non-Arab neighbors Iran and Turkey.

Iran should attend, he said, to help consolidate Iraq's government rather than serve the United States' "supraregional" plans. He claimed the United States has sought to increase the role of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt in Iraq, and "they are trying to weaken the power of the al-Maliki government, which enjoys the votes of the majority of" Iraqis. But he said "the people of Iraq" would block the plans of the United States and that triple alliance (Saudi Arabia/Jordan/Egypt), which he said had backed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

On a more positive note, Tehran-based academic Mahmud Dehqan told ISNA on April 30 that the conference could positively influence Iran's nuclear dossier, while "our absence" would not interrupt "the game" of regional diplomacy but allow for its development "against us." He said the conference would allow Iran to discuss various issues, including Iraq, Lebanon, and the nuclear dossier with the United States, which he described as the main protagonist in those areas.

Iraqi Premier Nuri al-Maliki and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran last year

A concern of Iranian officials is that Iran must win something for itself from such a meeting in exchange for the goodwill it shows in attending.

Politicians have intermittently claimed Iran was politically short-changed for the goodwill and cooperation -- or at least the benevolent neutrality -- they say it showed toward the United States during its attack on Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq after September 11, 2001.

Another part of Iran's reluctance to attend may be due to the uncertainty about the benefits it could win in exchange for helping stabilize Iraq, if indeed it can. There is only scant evidence of any Iranian influence with some insurgent and terrorist groups in Iraq.

The idea that Iran wields influence in Iraq, though, is in some way Iran's greatest bargaining chip. Some of its expectations might plausibly be cited as the release of Iranian officials captured in Irbil in January, less pressure on its controversial nuclear program and, more generally, to receive a message of assurance and acceptability by the United States and its Arab allies. It is not for nothing that Iraqi officials intermittently ask regional states not to mix their differences with Tehran with affairs in Iraq.

What's In It For Iran?

The comments of Iranian politicians display the recurrence of contradictory positions in official Iranian foreign policy.

Iran does not wish to talk to the United States, officials say, but newspapers have given front-page coverage to Iran's decision to attend the conference and the fact that Mottaki and Rice will be at the same venue.

Iran is attending the conference to help Iraq, and yet sees the meeting as a regional plot against Shi'a. Past allegations by some Iranian politicians that the United States and Great Britain have fuelled civil strife in Iraq to prolong their military presence seem to be speculation that borders on fantasy. But as al-Maliki reportedly told Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani in Baghdad on April 30, the chaos in Iraq could spin out of control into Iran. Who could say with any assurance -- if coalition forces left Iraq -- that even a majority Shi'a government backed by Iran could end the violence?

Could Iran's attendance at the conference be an honest expression of its concern -- as a neighbor and a rational international agent -- with Iraq's unending violence? Many commentators in Tehran have said the conference would achieve nothing without Iran. But perhaps behind the bold rhetoric of journalists and parliamentarians Iran, perturbed by the daily spectacle of bombs and collective death, is more amenable than it might appear to multilateral cooperation to stop that violence.

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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