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Iran: Foreign Minister's Meeting In Iraq May Herald Improved Ties

Iran's foreign minister says he intends to visit Iraq during the next few days in what appears to be a growing drive between the two states to improve relations. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at tensions between the two neighbors and why they have chosen this moment to talk.

Prague, 11 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's planned visit to Baghdad comes as a bid by both sides to ease tensions between them which reached dangerous levels this summer.

The visit, the first by such a top Iranian official since 1990, comes after an exploratory meeting between Kharrazi and Iraqi Oil Minister Taha Yassin Ramadan in Caracas last month. That meeting around an OPEC summit ended with both sides expressing satisfaction over the contact and saying they wanted to work for better relations.

So far, there has been no word of what the two sides could discuss in Baghdad. But the list of contentious issues between them offers numerous opportunities.

Analysts predict that priority number one will be tensions over the fact each side harbors the other state's main armed opposition group. Iran shelters the Mujahiddin-e Khalq, while Iraq harbors the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

This summer saw a steady escalation in the groups' cross-border operations, including attacks in Tehran and Baghdad.

Shahram Chubin, a regional specialist at the Center for Security Policy in Geneva, says the attacks this year reached crisis proportions.

"This year the number of exchanges [of attacks] has increased and the sense of crisis has also increased. There is a tendency to think that things may get out of hand if they are allowed to continue."

Other friction exists over accusations by both countries that the other holds prisoners from their 1980-1988 war. Iran unilaterally freed several thousand POWs this year but saw no reciprocation from Baghdad, which claims it has released all those it holds.

And there is tension over oil smuggling from Iraq, which Iran in the past has aided but this year has obstructed by intermittently impounding smugglers' vessels. It remains unclear whether the Iranian action is a bid to show cooperation with the international community over the sanctions on Iraq or pressure to increase the Iraqi smugglers' payoffs.

Analysts say all of these disputes are levers each side uses against the other in an effort to gain the upper hand in their long-standing rivalry. They say the meeting in Baghdad now offers -- at the very least -- an opportunity to ease hostilities after they have run unusually high.

But the meeting also could be a chance to go beyond crisis management to staking out common ground -- a prerequisite if Baghdad and Tehran are ever to ease their conflicts. If so, Kharrazi's visit appears scheduled to take advantage of several opportune developments which could help generate a bit of goodwill.

One is the crisis in the Middle East peace process -- which both Iran and Iraq reject. The Baghdad meeting gives both a chance to restate their opposition to any accord just as peace proponents on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides are most embattled.

And the recent rise in oil prices offers another possible common interest. Iran has welcomed high benchmark oil prices this year as relief for its cash-strapped economy. And Iraq has welcomed the high prices as a potential leverage against Western-led sanctions should Baghdad choose to withhold oil from the market. That makes Iraq and Iran -- both OPEC members -- highly interested in knowing more about the oil plans of the other.

Chubin says Tehran regards Iraq as being in a weak position as Baghdad seeks to break out of its international isolation. Tehran may see this as just the moment to start a give-and-take with Iraq which could lead to a stronger Iranian position in the region. Chubin:

"Normalization of relations with Iraq, or at least a defusing of problems on the borders, some limited accommodation with Saddam Hussein's regime which the Iranians don't trust, might increase [Tehran's] leverage in the region." Chubin says that Iraq, in turn, may hope bargaining with Tehran will help it convince other regional states Baghdad is no longer a threat.

"The Iraqis have every interest in diversifying their relations. And normalization with Iran would give Saddam an opening to say to the Gulf states that he no longer constitutes a threat, that other states [should] have normal relations with him."

Kharrazi left Tehran today for Lebanon and Syria to discuss the crisis in the Middle East. He told Iranian television that he would go to Baghdad after the end of those visits but provided no precise date.