Sunday, July 03, 2005

Iran's Waiting Game

Reese Erlich, St Petersburg Times:
In the labyrinths of Tehran's old bazaar, it doesn't take long to find the Iraqi-owned shops. Dozens of Iraqi merchants have set up small stores here as a way to survive during years of exile.

Each Iraqi knows someone who was abused or tortured under the Saddam Hussein regime. Many of these exiles welcomed the 2003 U.S. invasion as the only realistic way to rid their country of dictatorship.

Zuhair Razavi, who owns a small bead shop, says Iraqis "kiss the hands of the Americans" in thanks for overthrowing Hussein. He says it's time for Iraq to establish an Islamic state.

Iranian leaders also are happy to see Hussein gone. "We think America has done the best work for us, removing Saddam, our worst enemy," said Mehdi Rafsanjani, son of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

But Iranian leaders look forward to seeing U.S. troops gone from Iraq, too. While the United States confronts a tenacious Iraqi insurgency and strong international criticism, Iran can wait to reap political benefits, according to Mehdi Rafsanjani. READ MORE

The Bush administration accuses Iran's government of allowing foreign fighters to slip across the Iranian border to fight in Iraq. "We are worried that they (Iranians) are providing assistance to some of the elements that are close to the terrorists and that are in a position to undermine the political process that is going forward," Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, told the Voice of America.

Iranian officials deny they are supporting insurgents, noting that Tehran enjoys strong ties to leading politicians and political parties in Iraq.

The bloody events of the past quarter-century complicate relations between Iran and Iraq - and between Iran and the United States. After Iran's 1979 revolution, Iranian leaders tried to spread their brand of Islamic fundamentalism to neighboring countries. Fearing his revolutionary neighbor, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980 and fought a vicious, eight-year war. Hussein used chemical weapons, killing and maiming tens of thousands of Iranians. His infamous 1988 poison gas attack against Halabja in northern Iraq, often cited by President Bush in advance of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was directed at Kurds suspected of siding with Iran.

Washington supported Iraq in that war, considering Iran the bigger danger. The United States provided Hussein with satellite images and other intelligence. Iranians still remember 1983 photos of then-Reagan administration special envoy Donald Rumsfeld smiling and shaking hands with Hussein.

An estimated 600,000 Iraqis fled to Iran during that war, many expelled on short notice. Storekeeper Razavi says security forces surrounded his family's home early one morning in 1982. He says Hussein's men held his family and hundreds of others for a month.

"They forced the old people and children to walk two days to the Iran border," Razavi said. Iran maintained an open-door policy for Iraqi refugees, allowing them to work and attend school. Leaders of Iraq's moderate Islamist Dawa Party lived in Iran for years. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), with its armed Badr Brigades, was founded in Iran. The Iranians provided material support to these groups. SCIRI occupies a large, four-story office building in a commercial section of Tehran. At one time, 200 people worked there, but most have now returned to Iraq.

During Iraq's January elections, Dawa won the highest number of parliamentary seats within the ruling coalition, and its leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was elected prime minister. SCIRI got the second-highest number of seats.

"Iran and Iraq have a very, very good relationship," said Majid Ghammas, head of SCIRI in Iran. "The Iranian government understood the situation in Iraq better than other countries."

SCIRI sides with those parties in Iraq that favor a hard-line interpretation of Islam. "Iraq should be an Islamic state," said Ghammas. "Islam should be the source for our constitution, and no law should be approved that is against Islam."

On June 24, Iranians elected hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Iran is establishing an embassy and two consulates in Iraq. Top Foreign Ministry officials concluded a major trip to Iraq in May, and Iran plans to promote religious tourism to Iraq as a way of helping that country's beleaguered economy.

Some in Iran's ruling elite have a strong religious kinship with Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Iraqi cleric who fought U.S. troops last year in Baghdad and southern cities. They share a fundamentalist view of Shiite Islam.

Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, speaks favorably of al-Sadr, saying he "cannot be ignored or eliminated" and is "a very popular figure among the people."

While al-Sadr has strong support among some urban youth and the poor, Iranian officials also know his influence is limited. In the world of Iranian realpolitik, pragmatism trumps religion. For example, Iran has long supported secular Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who is now president of Iraq.

"Anyone who comes to power in Iraq, it's no problem," said Rafsanjani. "These are all our friends."

The Iranian-backed parties want calm to return to Iraq and the United States to withdraw as quickly as possible. "We want to build our own security system, and we want the occupier to withdraw," said SCIRI leader Ghammas. "But we want them to be there while we are rebuilding."

The official Iranian government position calls for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. "The Americans and British, have they really provided any security?" asked Hamid-Reza Asefi, deputy foreign minister. "No, they have not. So they should leave."

But unofficially, diplomats familiar with Iranian policy say the insurgency remains too strong for the United States to withdraw right away. Iran's government, like the Bush administration, doesn't want to see either secular nationalists or Sunni fundamentalists come to power in Iraq. Iranian authorities hope the United States can crush the insurgency, setting the stage for free elections that will bring their allies to power. If Iraq eventually breaks apart into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite countries, then Iranian officials think they would have strong influence in Kurdistan and a Shiite state.

Asefi said, "That is true. But that's not our fault. When Americans are working for us, we'll let them do it."

- Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich has been writing for the Times since 1989.