For Iran, Iraq is a two-edged sword

Many call the Islamic Republic the 'winner' in Iraq, but it faces the prospect of a long-term US presence next door.

The gloating tone was unmistakable, as Iran's Friday prayer leader spoke about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Iraq – and compared it with similar visits by his American counterpart, President Bush.

"When Bush is traveling to the region, even the stewardess on the flight does not know where they are going," crowed the black-turbaned cleric, Ahmad Khatami. "But we clearly state the agenda of President Ahmadinejad."

That flash of rhetoric – delivered in Tehran to thousands of fist-waving ideologues chanting "Death to America" – says much about how well Iran has emerged from the five-year US enterprise in Iraq. In fact, many argue that Iran is the biggest "winner" of the Iraq war, since its archfoe Saddam Hussein has been replaced by a pro-Iran Shiite government in Iraq.

But the geopolitical change is a double-edged sword for Tehran.

"Iran is the winner in the sense that Saddam Hussein is no longer there," says a political analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named because academics have been told not to speak to the press. "But Iran is now being challenged by a superpower in Iraq – in that sense Iran is not a winner. The Americans are building four major bases in Iraq, one only [10 miles] from the Iranian border, with two McDonald's and everything."

Iran's stock is clearly high with Iraq's Shiite-led government, thanks to decades of close collaboration when Iraq's current leaders were in exile, often in Iran where they received organizational and military support to challenge the Baathists. US generals charge that Iran is still providing groups with lethal weaponry that has killed American soldiers.

But all Iran's prowess at asymmetrical warfare, Iranians say, does not trump the mutual US-Iran interest in ensuring that Iraq does not collapse.

"Iran is going to be faced with the American challenge for many decades to come, depending on how it tunes into American strategy," says the political analyst. "Iraq is going to be an American project for a long time, with new education and legal systems. Just look at the size of the new US Embassy," he says, referring to the largest embassy complex in the world under construction in Baghdad.

That dynamic creates a balancing act for the US, as it weighs its strategic investment in Iraq against the nature of its 29-year rivalry with the Islamic Republic.

Iran's nuclear program has made progress, and its influence in the Arab world has soared. The Iranian president has scored other firsts, making the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) and attending a summit of Persian Gulf state leaders.

"Iran is one of the winners of this [Iraq] conflict," agrees Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to France, adding that the US and Iran still have many common aims. "Maybe our tactics and politics sometimes show another thing.... But what is in the interest of Iran's national security is stability in Iraq."

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