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Can Iran help stabilize Iraq?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2006


Iran has been here before, called upon by arch-foe America to assist in a neighborhood security problem. After 9/11, Iran helped the US extensively in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and establish a new government.

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It anticipated better relations in exchange for its assistance. But it was soon dubbed a member of the "Axis of Evil" by President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address.

The outcome of that flicker of cooperation may increase Iran's wariness if it yet again receives a request from the US for help, this time in Iraq.

"This led the Iranians to conclude the US was intent on overthrowing their regime, and would not be affected by cooperative behavior," says Barnett Rubin, of New York University.

Bringing Iran – and Syria – into a regional process to stabilize Iraq is being touted both by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Iraq Study Group, the US commission studying options that both Republicans and Democrats hope will provide a framework for facesaving change in Iraq.

But the calculus has changed since the 2003 Iraq invasion. As the US has become more mired in the war, Iran has gained confidence that it was unlikely to face US-engineered "regime change." Iran still has numerous reasons to engage, but the price-tag may be higher.

"We're going into this with a handicap of having weakened ourselves over the past three years, and trying to negotiate over Iraq at a time when Iraq itself is in the worst situation it could be," says Vali Nasr, a professor of national security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

"You are dealing with an Iran that is much more defiant, and much more over-confident," he adds. "Therefore Iranians may not be looking to build relations with the US ... but see it as an opportunity to pull US-Iran relations back from the brink."

The soft-spoken and reform-minded president Iran had in 2001 has also been replaced by arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has spoken vociferously at every opportunity to reinvigorate the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution, a key pillar of which was the slogan: "Death to the Great Satan."

"It is obviously in the national interest of Iran to have a stable Iraq," says Mr. Rubin, who advised UN negotiating teams on Afghanistan in 2001. "The question is whether the Bush administration is willing to overcome its ideological depiction of Iran as part of the axis of evil...[and] Ahmadinejad is willing to be pragmatic...despite his ideological commitments."

Mr. Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that Iran's position remained that it would speak to the US, but only if American officials change their "attitude" toward the Islamic Republic, and "correct[s] their behavior." He said he was preparing a message to Americans.

Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki also offered little hint at Iran's response Tuesday, saying it would consider any offer. The day before, officials gloated over the Republican defeat, saying they hoped it would yield a "180 degree" policy change.

But beneath the heated rhetoric, Iran and the US have both sent signals for months that they are ready to engage in some way.

Even Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved talks about Iraq earlier this year that Washington had authorized the US ambassador in Baghdad to conduct.

Iran wants all issues on the table, from its controversial nuclear program and resumption of US-Iran ties, to Iranian support for Hizbullah in Lebanon and Palestinian militants.

The US, so far, has demanded strict limits on topics. It has also insisted that Iran suspend nuclear enrichment activities before any talks can begin.