To Iran, the unrest next door is a double-edged sword
BY BORZOU DARAGAHI
For the Star-Ledger
Thursday, April 08, 2004
TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian officials are eyeing the unrest in neighboring Iraq with a mixture of feelings: a sense of vindication that Iraq's U.S.-led occupiers are in trouble, unable to fulfill their plans to reshape the Middle East, and alarm at the escalation of violence.
"If your neighbor's house is on fire, it means that your home is also in danger," said Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister and Tehran political insider.
As clashes between Shi'a Muslims and occupation troops continued for a fourth day in southern Iraq, and U.S. Marines battled Sunni Muslims in Fallujah, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi yesterday urged restraint on the part of the U.S. military. "'It is a strategic mistake if the U.S. thought it would deal with people with the same tactics (that) toppled Saddam Hussein," Kharazzi told reporters.
Earlier this week, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on Iranian state television: "The responsibility for the continued insecurity in Iraq lies with the occupation forces. We demand the rapid departure of occupation forces and the return of full power to Iraqis."
The United States and Iran have been locked in a cold war for a quarter-century, since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and the ensuing seizure of the U.S. Embassy by Iranian radicals, who held staff members hostage for more than a year.
Though Tehran was pleased to see its old enemy, Saddam Hussein, ousted by U.S.-led forces, Iranian officials have condemned the subsequent occupation.
A headline Monday in the conservative daily Jomhouri Eslami screamed: "The military forces of the occupation have created a bloody mess."
Critics in the United States and Israel have begun blaming Iran for the uprising led by followers of firebrand Shi'a preacher Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and some southern Iraqi cities. Iranians deny accusations that their clerical government has had any role in stirring up Iraq's Shi'as.
"Iran doesn't want to see a turbulent atmosphere in Iraq," Maleki said in an interview. "It doesn't help Iranian national interests."
Indeed, Iranian officials and humanitarian agencies had just put the finishing touches on plans to repatriate thousands of Iraqi refugees living in southwestern Iran when the latest crisis broke out.
To the dismay of Iranian officials eager to unburden themselves of the Iraqis, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees announced Tuesday it was suspending convoys that were returning Iraqis to their homeland. "Security incidents and tensions in southern Iraq" prompted the decision, High Commissioner spokesman Peter Kessler said at a news briefing in Geneva.
Sadr, the uprising's figurehead, hails from the same activist clerical tradition as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution.
"We are not hostile to America, but we are the enemy of occupation," the 31-year-old Sadr said in a Feb. 23 interview with the Iranian state news agency. "I only want a government based on freedom and rule by the people. Obviously such a government will be Islamic."
During his first-ever trip outside of Iraq, Sadr took the opportunity to visit Iran, where he reportedly met with high-level clerics. Critics point to this trip as evidence of Iran's backing of Sadr, but analysts point out that every Iraqi leader who travels to Iran -- including Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, a favorite of the Pentagon -- gets the red carpet treatment as Tehran attempts to subtly curry favor and influence with Baghdad's new political players.
For years Iran armed, bankrolled and hosted the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose representative on the Governing Council, Abdel Aziz Hakim, is among the most powerful figures in Iraq.
Almost all of Iraq's political and religious leaders -- including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hossein al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shi'a cleric, and secular pro-American Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani -- maintain offices in Iran.
"Iran has had very close contacts with all of the groups who opposed Saddam Hussein's regime," Maleki said. "Iraqi Kurds, Sunnis, Arabs and Shi'as all have had good relations with Iran."
This week, Iraq Interior Minister Nouri al-Badran met with his Iranian counterparts in order to encourage Iranian investment in Iraq, according to the official news agency. Each day, thousands of Iranian pilgrims cross the border to visit the Shi'a shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Several Iranians were among those killed in clashes Tuesday night, according to Iranian news accounts, prompting officials to shut the border.
Even conservative commentator Amir Taheri, an exiled Iranian opponent of the clerical regime, wrote in the New York Post that Iran's clerics view Sadr as a loose cannon. "Iran still regards Sadr as a temperamental egomaniac who might not be able to play a major role in a delicate anti- U.S. power play," he wrote. http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/index.ssf?/base/news-14/1081412172268960.xml