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Iran and Iraq: Too Close for Comfort? By: Erick Stakelbeck and Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 16, 2005

As Iraqi citizens participate in another round of democratic elections today, the current Iraqi government is busy reestablishing contacts with its next-door neighbor and historical enemy: Iran. The accelerated nature of these contacts has Washington extremely concerned – and rightly so.

The increased bilateral cooperation between Iraq and Iran centers in part around both governments’ desire to see the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Iraq; there’s also the not-so-small matter of Shi’ite Iran’s desire to exercise influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. Sensing an opportunity to help cultivate a Shi’ite theocracy in Iraq similar to its own, the Iranian government has readily offered its assistance to rebuild Iraq’s fractured economic, political, and security infrastructure. And the Iraqis seem all too willing to accept.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Jalal Talabani in November, Iran’s hard-line Islamist President, Mahmoud Ahmandinejad, proclaimed, “Iran is ready to share its expertise in different sectors with the Iraqi people and government. A strong and developed Iraq will be the best friend of the Islamic Republic.”


In an earlier trip to Tehran, Iranian leaders assured Talabani that the country would support Iraq’s transition to democracy – a peculiar assurance given the Islamic fundamentalist government’s hatred for American-styled democracy and freedoms.


Talabani, in turn, has said he is “sure that [Iraq] will enjoy the Iranian government's co-operation” in its ongoing struggle against terrorism, odd considering Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, even helping to fund and equip “insurgents” in southern Iraq.


The Brits, in particular, insist that Iran is supplying powerful roadside bombs that have been used in attacks against Coalition forces. Tehran even harbored the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, following the terrorist mastermind’s retreat from Afghanistan in 2002. Reports also persist that al-Zarqawi has received shelter in Iran at various points since the Coalition’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.


The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has taken note of the Iranian regime’s double game in Iraq: “Iran is working along two contradictory tracks,” said Khalilzad in August. “On the one hand, Tehran works with the new Iraq. On the other hand, there is movement across its borders of people and material used in violent acts against Iraq.”


Yet, to the dismay of Khalilizad and other administration officials, improved relations between the two former enemies seem inevitable.


Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak Rubaie returned to Baghdad recently with a memorandum of understanding outlining an expanded intelligence sharing relationship with Tehran. In July, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari made a three-day visit to Tehran where an agreement was reached for joint participation in the construction of three pipelines and in the transport of 150,000 barrels per day of Basra crude to the Abadan refinery in Iran.


Numerous other bilateral agreements between the two countries have been made over the past twelve months, including the extension of a $1 billion line of credit by Iran to Iraq; (supposed) anti-terrorism cooperation; and joint efforts to reconstruct several Iraqi ports.


Indeed, memories of Iraq’s bloody war with Iran—which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and claimed at least a million lives—seem to be fading fast. In a visit to Tehran earlier this year, Iraq’s Defense Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi exclaimed, “We’ve come here to open a new page in our relations against the painful page of the past.” Iranian Defense minister Ali Shamkhani concurred, saying, “No one can prevent this cooperation.”


Iraqi Prime Minister Spokesman Laith Kubba recently noted that the U.S. is wasting its time trying to hinder the development of bilateral relations between Iraq and Iran. “The U.S. should know that Iran is a significant neighbor and that it is not reasonable to disapprove of the strengthening of relations between the two countries. The recent visit indicates Iraq’s strong, friendly relations with their Iranian brothers.”


Just as it has attempted to allay tensions over its burgeoning nuclear program, Iran is already attempting to calm fears concerning its growing relationship with Iraq. “It’s something no one should be worried about,” Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. Mohamed Javad Zarif, said recently. “It’s good for the region.”


Actually, it’s just the opposite. Iran’s escalating threats toward Israel, rapidly developing nuclear weapons program, wholesale human rights violations and continued support of global terrorism have ensured that much. Indeed, closer relations between the two countries at this time would severely compromise Iraqi stability and security, not enhance it. 

In the coming months, it will be important for the Bush administration to work closely with Baghdad to formulate a joint Iran foreign policy strategy which will serve to solidify democracy and freedom in the region. Statements last month by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the U.S. is considering direct contacts with the Iranian government as a way to resolve the violence in Iraq may hold as many risks as benefits for the Iraqi people. The U.S. should proceed with great caution in cementing any Iran-Iraq relationship and always remember that Iran’s ultimate intentions in a fragile Iraq may still lie behind a facade of conciliation, friendship and trust.

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Erick Stakelbeck (e-mail) is a correspondent for CBN News. Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr. (e-mail) is a foreign affairs expert.

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