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Iran's growing presence in Iraq

The US, Iran, and Iraq agreed Tuesday to form a subcommittee on stability in Iraq.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2007


At the second round of talks between Iranian and US diplomats here Tuesday, one message American Ambassador Ryan Crocker delivered was that the US wants Tehran to play a positive role in Iraq.

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But ask many Iraqi Shiites, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and they say their neighbors are doing just that. In fact, economic ties between Iran and Iraq are growing in the face of US criticism of Tehran's meddling, which includes arming militias. Such Iran-Iraq links are not only bolstered by common beliefs binding Shiite leaders but also, some experts say, by a US strategy to arm and support former Sunni insurgents – many of whom consider Shiites bitter foes – in the fight against Al Qaeda.

All of this puts Iran in a much stronger position in any future talks with the Americans, analysts say.

"The Iranians are running the ship in Iraq, not the Americans. They also have [many] more chips on the table in Iraq than the US," says Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "The situation in Iraq is strategically more in favor of the Iranians than the Americans."

Trade between Iran and Iraq over the past year amounts to almost $1 billion, says Iraqi Finance Minister Byan Jabr al-Zubaidi. Trade between Iran and Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region accounts for half of that.

Mr. Zubaidi adds that Iran just finalized a $1 billion loan deal with Iraq tied to specific investments. And he expects business ties to grow once Iraq passes a law regulating direct foreign investments.

Iran was also one of the first countries to sign a "friendship treaty" with Iraq's Parliament. Some of Iran's parliamentarians were in Baghdad last month to meet with top Iraqi officials where they offered to rebuild the Shiite shrine in Samarra that has been bombed twice.

Iran recently gave Mr. Maliki an Airbus 300 jetliner to use for government business.

The office of Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, who visited Iran last month, said in a statement Monday that "he was happy with Iran's position and called it positive … hoping that Iran may use its influence over some Iraqi factions to cool down the situation in Iraq."

But that stands in contrast to the growing allegations from the US military, and ample evidence seen by officials and analysts, that the Iranians are arming, funding, and supporting Shiite militias that are targeting both US forces and other Iraqis.

"Roughly two months since our last meeting, we have actually seen militia-related activity that can be attributed to Iranian support go up and not down.... So I was as clear as I could be with the Iranians that this effort, this discussion has to be measured in results and not in principles and promises, and that thus far the results on the ground are not encouraging," said Mr. Crocker at a press conference after the meeting with the Iranians in Baghdad.

He said the parties discussed the formation of a security subcommittee that would address issues relating to violent militias, border security, and Al Qaeda.

The talks, he said, were limited to "security in Iraq, and we made it clear that that's the agenda ... there is not a broader agenda. This is not a forum to address other issues in the Iranian-US relationship," although it appeared that the Iranians were much more interested in a broader conversation.

But that narrow approach will only go so far, says Mr. Kahwaji. While he said the second round was "a good confidence building measure," they will go nowhere if the negotiations do not move to a much higher level, for instance involving direct talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.