ANY measure - including a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq - that loosens President Saddam Hussein's grip on his country is welcomed by Iran, according to Western diplomats and a senior Iranian official contacted in Tehran. But the Iranians do not favor a three-way partition of their neighbor.
"Iran is deeply preoccupied by the massacre and the surrounding by governmental forces of Iraqi Shiite Muslims. The killing of innocent Muslims should be brought to an end immediately," said Iran's Supreme Security Council, chaired by President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, on Saturday.
But the Council stressed that "in no circumstances should Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity be threatened. The solution for the oppressed people of Iraq is to be allowed to choose as soon as possible the government it wishes."
Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of the Lebanese Hizbullah (Party of God) movement, a man who generally expresses views close to that of the Iranian government, said Friday in Beirut that the "best solution [to the Iraqi crisis] would be the downfall of Saddam Hussein," according to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA.
Western observers in Tehran said the communique from the Supreme Security Council is a signal that Iran won't oppose the allied decision to block Iraqi air attacks on Shiite rebels based in the marshlands south of the 32nd parallel.
DURING the 1980s Iran fought a bitter, eight-year war with Iraq and sought repeatedly to overthrow Saddam. When, in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 Saddam accepted a return to the 1975 peace treaty that delineates the border between Iran and Iraq, relations between the two countries improved slightly and Iranian leaders stopped talking of the removal of the Iraqi president.
Nonetheless an Iranian official close to Mr. Rafsanjani contacted in Tehran on Saturday explained, "We have nothing against this air-exclusion zone in southern Iraq, although we do believe it's a move primarily aimed at pumping up [President] Bush's lagging electoral campaign.
"But we couldn't accept the setting up, south of the 32nd parallel, of a safe haven for the Shiites similar to the one that was created north of the 36th parallel [in April 1991] for the Kurds. Because that proved to be a step toward the creation of an independent Kurdish state and the splitting of Iraq."
The concept of a Kurdish safe haven was first devised by the British government and later included the deployment by the coalition leaders of both ground and air forces. Iran criticized the safe haven, and consequently condemned the electoral process that took place in Iraqi Kurdistan last May. Two months later, the Iranian press ran vitriolic editorials against the French president's wife, who had entered Iraqi Kurdistan from Turkey without an Iraqi visa.
The daily Tehran Times, which reflects the views of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote on July 7, "Recent elections in Iraqi Kurdistan are a clear sign that Western countries support the idea of dividing Iraq. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union new little countries have emerged in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia. Western powers are now poised to disintegrate a series of third-world countries and Iraq is their first try."
Western diplomats say Iranian officials are worried that an Iraq split on ethnic lines might lead to disturbances in Iran's Kurdish and Arab provinces. Indeed, the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan is mainly inhabited by ethnic Arabs who have throughout their history maintained close relations with Iraqi Shiites living on the other side of the border. In the months that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khuzestan was shaken by a wave of social disturbances after the alleged infiltration of Iraqi -backed Arab nationalists who tried to stir up a separatist movement.