Iraq war could recast US-Iran ties

In an exclusive interview, the leader of a major Iraqi opposition group in Iran signals a warming trend.

The leader of Iraq's most powerful armed Islamic opposition group is moving closer to backing American plans for toppling Saddam Hussein.

The support of Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakkim, whose Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) adheres to the same Shiite branch of Islam as most Iraqis, would be a welcome ingredient in US plans.

Mr. Al-Hakkim's increasingly accommodating message - after rejecting any US military involvement in remarks last spring - reflects a changing stance in the country where he and his group now live: Iran.

The rebel group is just one factor in a prickly US-Iran dynamic: Though President Bush's condemnation of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" still rings in Iranian ears, Washington and Tehran share some larger strategic goals.

Observers say the potential Iranian-US horse-trading could result in possible use by US Special Forces of Iranian military bases, the destruction by the US of anti-Iranian militia bases in Iraq, and Iran's help in rooting out Islamic militants in Iraq linked to Al Qaeda.

"The basic assumption is the Iranians are anxious to cooperate, because they hate Saddam Hussein, but also because they don't want to be left out," says a European diplomat in Tehran. "Surely they have something to offer: They have influence on the Shia [in Iraq] - so let it be a positive [influence], and not a negative one, which is what everyone fears."

The key may be how Hakkim, as the head of SCIRI, plays his hand. Eight of his brothers - most of them clerics - have been killed under Mr. Hussein's regime. He was himself tortured in the 1970s before fleeing into exile, and has long dreamed of Hussein's collapse.

Qualified support for US

But he has some reservations about a US attack. "We agree with the Americans in the goal, but our way is different," says Hakkim. "We don't want the innocent to be killed, and we want to preserve the integrity, independence, and infrastructure of Iraq.

"If the American plan goes with these facts, we will cooperate with them," Hakkim says. "But if the matter is invasion of Iraq, or appointing an American ruler in Iraq, in this case we can't cooperate with them.."

Hakkim says he conveyed these points in Washington in August, when he sent his only surviving brother to meet with US officials and other Iraqi opposition leaders.

But that dialogue is now linked with a growing sense in Iran - home to SCIRI's 8,000 to 10,000 strong "Badr Brigade" force - that a US attack on Iraq is inevitable.

SCIRI's role is likely to depend on Iran and its declared policy of "active neutrality." "SCIRI is surely an unofficial voice of the Iranians," says the diplomat. " 'Active neutrality' in Afghanistan meant supporting the [US-backed] Northern Alliance. There is no reason it can't be the same here."

Iran was quietly very helpful to US forces during the Afghan campaign - secretly providing key targeting data on Taliban targets, while publicly agreeing to permit US pilots emergency landing rights in Iran. But Iran's reward - being branded part of the US "axis of evil" - was a slap in the face that still stings in Tehran. Despite the resulting "deep lack of trust, this could be another opportunity to get together," says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named.

SCIRI has more extensive contacts in Iraq than any other opposition group. "What is critical is how SCIRI will play its role in a post-Saddam era," the analyst says. "Iran could be very important in this regard, for stability."

Iran denied reports that emerged last month that it had offered the US military use of bases along its Iraq border. But in a recent analysis, strategic think tank notes that the "logic for basing US troops in western Iran is sound," and that the Iranian denial, in fact, "might indicate a decision by Tehran try to win future concessions from Washington."

Such speculation stems from a consensus among Iran's hard-line conservatives and reformers - who are otherwise locked in an intensifying power struggle - that "Iran should be an active player in this Iraq campaign," says Shahram Chubin, an Iran expert and head of research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland.

"The big question in Iran is: On whose watch will be improvement of relations with the US?" says Chubin. "It is obvious the more conservative elements would like it to be them, because it would be popular in Iran, and be a way to steal the reformists' clothes."

Officially, Iran opposes any war in Iraq, while insisting that Baghdad adhere to UN demands to disarm.

Decades of poisonous anti-US rhetoric make even modest conciliatory steps difficult. On Friday Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the hard-line Tehran prayer leader, called for those advocating better ties with the US to "repent."

Mutual benefits

Still, US-Iran strategic interests coincide over Iraq. One bonus for Iran would almost certainly be the destruction of the five main bases in Iraq of the Mujahideen e-Khalq Organization (MKO), which has conducted a string of attacks in Iran and been labeled a terrorist group by the US State Department.

"If [US Secretary of State] Colin Powell wants to make an impression on Iran, he should order the 82nd Airborne to take out those MKO bases," says a Western diplomat.

One quid pro quo may be Iranian help in combating a small Al Qaeda presence in the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq. Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - one of Iraq's two main Kurdish factions - was quoted by The New York Times from Damascus last week saying that Iran "promised to help us in this plan."

Western diplomats say that previous SCIRI dreams of creating an Islamic state in Iraq, modeled after Iran, have long been abandoned. The pledge now is a "democratic" government for "all" Iraqis, including minority Kurds and Sunni Muslims.

Whether coinciding interests translate into thawing US-Iranian links depends on American war plans. But the talk of using Iranian bases may be an early signal. "The Iranians seem to be ready for anything [with the US] at the moment," says the European diplomat, "as long as it is not high profile, so they can continue to chant: 'Death to America.' "

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