Iran Seeks Role in Postwar Talks, Denies Part in Iraqi Unrest

WHILE Iranians have no pity for the Iraqi leadership, Tehran is not fanning the unrest reportedly spreading in southern Iraqi cities, say Iranian diplomats at the United Nations. ``Iran does not have any role in what is happening, and we are not contemplating any involvement. We respect the decision of the Iraqi people on their future government,'' says Javad Zarif, Iran's charg'e d'affaires at the UN.

Sympathy does exist for the suffering of the Iraqi people - and concern over the presence of Western armies, which are virtually on Iran's border, the diplomats say.

Iran is also very concerned, says Mohammad Jaafar Mahallati - Iran's former ambassador at the UN and now a visiting scholar at Columbia University - about the possible disintegration of Iraq, which he says would cause great instability in the region for a long time to come.

The other major preoccupation of Iranian authorities, Mr. Mahallati says, is the question of security arrangements in the Gulf region. First, he says, Iran - which has over 50 percent of the Gulf's coastline - must be included in any discussions. Second, no viable arrangement can be conceived without Iraq - or with Iraq, so long as it is led by Saddam Hussein. Third, states not bordering on the Gulf should be excluded from the arrangements.

Iranian leaders have repeatedly called for the withdrawal of foreign forces as soon as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was reversed. But the government has also given signs there was some benefit to allowing foreign forces to check the power of Saddam, who is held responsible for dragging Iran into an eight-year war.

``The government has taken a much more flexible position than expected vis-`a-vis the coalition,'' Mahallati says.

The lack of US-Iranian relations has clouded the question of foreign troop presence. Contacts between the two governments take place only through the mediation of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

Diplomats agree that the proximity of US forces now occupying Iraq makes Tehran nervous about US intentions, given the degree of US-Iranian estrangement. But there have been indications Iran could easily accept a US presence at the level that existed prior to the 1987 operation to reflag Kuwaiti ships. If there were a prospect of improved ties even two to three years hence, Iran might even cope with a somewhat larger US presence.

Some Iranians say they took heart from a statement made by President Bush explicitly acknowledging Iran's worry about US forces remaining in the Gulf for an extended time - and offering reassurance that this would not happen.

In addition, the US notified Iran a few hours before the ground operation began, according to a well-placed source. The message asked Iran to maintain neutrality, and again promised that the US would not prolong its presence in the region.

Iranian and European diplomats point to President Hashemi Rafsanjani's offer to mediate between Iraq and the US on the eve of the UN Security Council's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The diplomats say the offer was intended to avoid the outbreak of war - but add that it was the first time the Islamic Republic had publicly offered a kind of negotiations with the US.

``That was quite a risky step, in view of some opinion in the Iranian majlis [parliament],'' a European representative says.

An Iranian newspaper, Salaam, published by Hojatolislam Musawi Khoeniha - who led the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran - strongly criticized Mr. Rafsanjani's move. The paper recalled that former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan was brought down after shaking Zbigniew Brezinksi's hand at a meeting in Algiers.

Some Iranians have also criticized the normalization of relations with Iraq, suggesting that if the government had only waited a few months, it would never have had to deal with the regime that caused so much devastation in Iran.

At the same time, arguments are also quietly being made, informed sources say, that if Iran could deal with Iraq, it should be able to deal with the US.

Iran's opposition to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, its efforts to cultivate ties with Arab neighbors across the Gulf, and its dealings with Iraq ``made our people believe for the first time that we have a foreign policy, and that boosts morale,'' he adds.

Iran's seizure of Iraqi aircraft taking refuge in Iran brought praise from Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III, who said Iran had behaved responsibly.

``We are responsible and serious whether Secretary Baker states it or not,'' says Zarif. ``But the admission of fact by a US Secretary of State is always welcome.''

The diplomat adds: ``Iran did play an active role in securing Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Unfortunately, it did not bear fruit at the time we had hoped ... But Iran can now play a significant role in bringing hostilities to an end, and on establishing permanent security in the region.''

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