Prague, 3 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States this week expressed hope Iran will help in efforts to bring about a change of government in Iraq even though until now Tehran has opposed most U.S. policy toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Frank Ricciardone, Washington's newly named Special Representative for Transition in Iraq, said in Kuwait on Sunday that the U.S. hopes all of Iraq's neighboring countries have, in his words, the same interest in seeing a free and independent Iraq get back on its feet. He also said he regretted what he called Iran's inability to speak with Washington.
Iran so far has shown no sign of backing U.S. policies toward Iraq in spite of the fact Saddam has long been both countries' mutual enemy. Iran fought an eight-year war with Tehran ending in 1988 and the two sides have yet to sign a peace treaty. But Tehran has consistently opposed U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq to enforce UN demands that Iraq cooperate with arms inspectors.
Analysts say Washington wants at least tacit Iranian support for its efforts to change Iraq's government to boost the chances Iraq's opposition factions can one day replace Saddam's regime. The U.S. administration has repeatedly said it wants to see Saddam replaced by a democratic government committed to Iraq's territorial integrity and peaceful relations with its neighbors.
Graham Fuller, an analyst of Iranian and Iraqi affairs at the Rand Corporation in Washington, says the U.S. needs better relations with Iran if efforts to replace Saddam are to succeed:
"Improvement of Iranian relations with Washington is really critical at this juncture to liberate the US policy vis a vis Iraq. At this point, Tehran has viewed Washington as a greater threat than even Baghdad to its own regime, and its policy has been to stymie (Washington in) almost anything and everything while enjoying Iraq's weakness. If ties improve with Tehran, Tehran will have to make some more critical decisions about just how far to go with Washington on this ... and what their vision of a future Baghdad should be."
Washington included a Tehran-based opposition organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), among seven factions which it designated last month as eligible to receive a total of 97 million dollars in US military training and equipment. The U.S. administration, however, has set no timetable for if and when it might actually arm the organizations.
The SCIRI, an umbrella for several Iraqi Shiite parties, is the main powerhouse in Shiite Muslim southern Iraq, which is considered a hotbed for opposition to Saddam's rule. Correspondents say the alliance commands some 10,000 to 12,000 armed fighters, including former Iraqi military members, and is the only armed faction that works clandestinely within Iraq.
The SCIRI force was largely recruited by Tehran from the ranks of Iraqi Shiite soldiers captured during the Iran-Iraq war and correspondents say its fighters can move back and forth across Iran's marshy southeastern border with Iraq, which is mostly out of Baghdad's control.
So far, the SCIRI has rejected any direct American involvement in overthrowing Saddam and said it would not accept U.S. aid. Its position reflects that of Tehran, which shelters it out of solidarity with Iraq's majority Shiite population and as part of an effort to undermine Baghdad.
Tehran and Washington have had no official ties since Washington broke off diplomatic relations following the seizure of its embassy staff in Tehran in 1979.
But analysts say that Washington's move now to offer support to Shiite opposition factions may push Tehran to reconsider whether it can guarantee its own interests in Iraq without cooperating with Washington.
Fuller predicts that Iraq will one day obtain a more democratic government in which the majority Shiite Arab population will become dominant. He says that would please Tehran if it happened today, when most of the Iraqi Shiite movement is based in Tehran.
But the analyst says that any future Shiite resurgence in Iraq which is not at least partly influenced by Iran could pose threats to it.
"The whole future of Iraq ... I think that is perhaps the single most problematic issue of all for Iranian foreign policy, since it is the only other state in the region where you have a majority of Shiites (and they now are) excluded from power by a Sunni Arab minority and oppressed very considerably in addition to that ... (But) further down the road, if we do have a strongly Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, which eventually will come, then I could see a very serious rivalry between Iran and Iraq over the question of leadership of the Shiite world."
Fuller says the desire of Iran to influence what Iraq becomes in the future may make it imperative for Tehran to consider now what role it might play in replacing Saddam, and whether or not to work with Washington to that end.