As Iraq teeters, Iran weighs its options

Iraq's foreign minister visited Tehran this week. Britain's foreign secretary will visit next week.

Like most Iranians, Majid Ahmadi has good reason to want Saddam Hussein ousted.

Now a mild-mannered civil servant, he was a 17-year-old volunteer soldier when he was captured by Iraqi forces two years after Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran. He was held prisoner – in terrible conditions – for nearly eight years. He was beaten with cables, made to stand out in the blistering sun, and subjected to "mental torture" in the form of ear-splitting Iraqi propaganda music for 12 hours a day.

"I'll never forgive Saddam because he started the war against us, and we lost so many good people," he says. "Saddam can never be trusted. He's no good for Iraq, the region, or the world."

Yet he has deep misgivings about an American attack on Iraq. "The US doesn't care about the Iraqis. It cares about its own interests like oil, boosting Israel, and increasing pressure on Iran," he says.

His views reflect the dilemma now facing the divided Iranian leadership as it struggles to shape a common policy on how to prepare for what Tehran regards as an inevitable American attack on its neighbor. Iran, strategically placed and supportive of major Iraqi opposition groups, has significant means to help or hinder any anti-Hussein effort. Interested parties are beating a path to Tehran to assess Iran's attitude to a war in Iraq. But Tehran is torn between hatred of the Iraqi leader and concern that the hawkish administration in Washington could next turn its unfriendly attention on Iran.

Naji Sabri, the Iraqi foreign minister, visited Iran last weekend, carrying a message from Mr. Hussein and talking of "new horizons" in ties with Iran. Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, is due in Tehran next week during a tour of the Persian Gulf.

But there is still deep dismay in Tehran that, after backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and helping to broker the new government in Kabul, Iran was branded part of an "axis of evil" by President Bush.

Neutrality is Iran's official position. Both Iranian reformers and conservatives are united in opposing any American attack on Iraq while also demanding that Iraq comply with UN resolutions. But senior officials have indicated that Iran would accept the use of force as a "reality" if a fresh UN resolution authorizes military action against Baghdad. At the same time they have stressed that Iran would not participate in any military action against Iraq, even if approved by the UN.

Many have made clear that while they have no desire to see the US extend its influence on Iran's western border, they believe any regime in Baghdad would be better than Hussein's.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, who heads the largest party in the Iranian parliament and is the brother of the country's reformist president, told a Kuwaiti newspaper last week:

"The overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, through whatever means, will be the happiest day for all the Iranian people." But he added: "If Saddam Hussein is a criminal, the biggest criminal is the superpower which provided him with all the weapons of mass destruction and the technology for these prohibited arms."

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Sabri left Tehran without any clear message of support against an American attack. He was told it was up to Baghdad to readmit weapons inspectors and comply with UN resolutions.

But Tehran is deeply worried that a US attack on Iraq will destabilize the region and send a flood of refugees to its border. A major consideration for Iranian hard-liners is that an attack on Iraq would complete the encirclement of Iran by US forces who are already in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

Reformers, meanwhile, although keen both to reach out to Washington and see the back of Hussein, are concerned that, at least in the short term, their powerful hard-line rivals could use an American attack on Iraq as a pretext for a further domestic crackdown.

But a recent visit to Tehran by a senior delegation of Iraqi Kurdish dissidents is also said to have left with the firm impression that, despite public rhetoric, Iranian leaders across the spectrum would in fact be quietly delighted with Hussein's removal.

"I think Saddam Hussein is more of a threat for Iran than an American-backed regime in Baghdad," says Abbas Maleki, who was deputy foreign minister under Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who still commands great influence in the conservative camp.

"The experience of Afghanistan shows that Karzai [the new US-backed leader] is more pro-Iranian interests than the Taliban," he adds.

Maleki proposed a policy of "active neutrality" whereby Tehran would continue to support the Iraqi opposition, co-ordinate with Iraq's neighbors, and allow "the emergency landing of American pilots" in Iran.

Several major Iraqi opposition groups courted by Washington have offices in Tehran, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the US-funded Iraqi National Congress.

Foreign envoys in Tehran said if Iran chose "active neutrality" it could also offer invaluable intelligence on Iraq. "A lot depends on how the US plays its cards on Iran in the next six months," a senior European diplomat says. "And it would be much easier for Iran to be positively neutral if there is a clear UN route."

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