IN the lobby of the luxurious Rashid Hotel, an Iraqi journalist presses for an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. It is the first visit to Baghdad by a senior Iranian official in a decade. A member of the Iranian delegation patiently explains - in perfect Arabic - that he would do his best to secure the interview. In their mid-thirties, the two men only two years ago might have been engaged in a deadly battle on the Iraqi-Iranian frontier. Now, more than a year after the cease-fire, they appear intrigued by their meeting.
The encounter symbolizes a remarkable change. After a decade of open hostility, the two main rivals for the role of regional powerbroker in the Persian Gulf are attempting a grudging rapprochement, spurred by the massive United States-led military buildup in the region.
Because both Iran and Iraq vehemently oppose what they perceive as an ``American plot'' to control the rich oil fields and dictate the oil prices, they see it in their best interests temporarily to bury old grievances in order to form a united front against their common enemy.
But their rivalry is not likely to be replaced by an alliance, say officials from both sides.
``We do have a clear stand against the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, but to talk about joint coordination with Baghdad is not yet part of the agenda,'' a member of the Iranian delegation told the Monitor. ``We have many differences.''
Prisoners of war remain a contentious issue and an obstacle to normalizing relations. Despite last month's broad-based operation sponsored by the International Red Cross to exchange prisoners of war, both sides still claim the other is detaining soldiers.
Iraq says more than 37,000 of its soldiers are still in Iran. Mr. Velayati has brought with him a long list of missing Iranian soldiers.
While Iran is determined to put the question of the prisoners of war at the top of the agenda, Baghdad is trying to focus on efforts to reach a peace treaty that will at least neutralize Tehran in Iraq's confrontation with the West over its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Baghdad hopes that a treaty with Iran will protect it from an attack by the Iranians from either its eastern frontier or northern border where Tehran could cause serious problems for Iraq by backing Kurdish dissidents.
``We are very concerned about our prisoners of war, but we have no interest in making a public controversial issue at this stage,'' concedes a senior Iraqi official.
The Iraqi government, however, is being pressured by thousands of Iraqi families who are still waiting for their sons and husbands to come home. The return of Iraqi prisoners of war has proved traumatic for some families whose loved ones appear to have been poorly fed and heavily indoctrinated. Iraq claims that it has given better treatment to Iranian prisoners of war. Iraq is not in a position to press this point, however.
To lessen its isolation and to ease the effects of the international blockade, Saddam has made a big concession by relinquishing Iraqi claims, at least for the moment, to sovereignty and navigation rights in the Shatt al Arab waterway, restoring the 1975 Algiers Agreement. Iraq's annulment of the agreement in 1980 led to the outbreak of the Gulf war.
Iraq's need for a neutral Iran has given Tehran an important advantage, enabling it to dictate some of the rules of the game. Iraqi officials here say that they have no illusions about Iranian objectives and no great expectations that Tehran will go out of its way to ease pressure on Iraq.
Iran divided on strategy
According to one theory propounded by some Iraqi officials here, there are two schools of thought in the Iranian ruling circle.
On one hand, they say, Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would like to use the current Iraqi dilemma to further weaken Baghdad by pressing for an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
The other school of thought propounded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the more militant Ali Akbar Mohtashemi argues that the priority should be given to confronting the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf region.
``I believe that some Iranian leaders would not mind a limited US operation to weaken Baghdad's military power,'' says an Iraqi official, in apparent reference to Mr. Rafsanjani's thinking.
Iraqi officials and Arab diplomats agreed, however, that Tehran would not like to see either a stronger Iraq emerge from the current confrontation or a destroyed and defeated Iraq. The latter, they say, would give way to US domination of the region.
``Iranian interests and concerns, barring an unlikely deal with Washington, should allow a minimum level of normalization to lessen some of the pressure on Iraq,'' says a senior Arab diplomat.
Smuggled Iranian goods, including potatoes, rice, tomato sauce, matches, and yellow apples, have already appeared in Iraqi markets. Tehran has publicly abided by the international economic sanctions against Iraq. But it seems to be allowing a certain amount of trafficking of goods across the border.
Iraqis argue that Tehran could make things much easier for Iraq by allowing wider scale smuggling of commodities.
``Tehran is in a position to blackmail all the parties involved, including the Saudis, the Iraqis, the Syrians, and the West,'' says the Arab diplomat. ``It's aware of its bargaining position and certainly exploiting it.''
On the second day of his visit here, Velayti went to Karbala and Najaf, two of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines. Baghdad has reportedly agreed to allow access to Iranians wishing to make pilgrimages to these holy sites.
But Iran is trying to corner Iraq by making two difficult demands, according to well-informed sources.
First, Tehran wants to bring the body of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from Iran to Najaf - where the Iranian spiritual leader was based during his long years in exile.
Second, Tehran has reportedly asked the Iraqi government to publicly identify the grave of Mohammed al-Bakr Sadr, the leader of the once-strong Shiite Dawa Party. Mr. Bakr Sadr was assassinated by the Iraqi government at the outset of the Gulf war.
But there is one issue that the two sides appear eager to be seen as strongly advocating.
As they continue to compete for leadership of the Muslim world, especially after Saddam stepped up his rhetoric calling for Islamic jihad (holy war), they will both press for a linkage between the resolution of the Gulf crisis and the Israeli-Arab conflict.
``Palestine remains the number one cause as far as we are concerned,'' says a Velayati aide. ``It has to be given priority, and we shall push for that.''