Iran Adds Fuel to Iraqi Inferno: Iran's Involvement in the Iraqi Imbroglio, Once Denied by Some Western Powers, Is Now beyond Doubt. Adel Darwish Reports on the Relentless Spread of Iranian Dominance in Southern Iraq and What the Islamic Republic Hopes to Achieve There

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UNLIKE THEIR AMERICAN counterparts, British diplomats are not in the habit of formulating strategy based on wishful thinking. However, they seem to have made a costly exception with Iran. For most of the past two years, the Foreign Office has done its utmost to dissuade journalists from further investigating accusations made by American and Iraqi Sunni leaders claiming that hard-line mullahs and revolutionary politicians in Iran were stirring up trouble in Southern Iraq, as part of a grand design to control the area and effectively steer a majority Shi'a government in Baghdad on a course compatible with Tehran's long-term wider strategy.

"On the contrary," British diplomats told journalists at a meeting to discuss our observations following a trip to Southern Iraq earlier this year, "Iran is being very helpful in the political process. It has an interest in stability in Iraq."

However, events over the past weeks have slowly but painfully awoken senior British officials from their daydream of effecting a great reconciliation between Iran and the United States.

In an off the record briefing in October I could hardly believe my ears as senior Foreign Office officials changed the tone of their spin by 180 degrees to sound like the hardest American neo-conservatives.

"One can only speculate about Iran's motives but I do not think they are all that benign," a senior British official said, briefing hacks on the eve of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani's first official visit to the UK.

Technology used in the devices that claimed the lives of British soldiers was similar to that given to the Hizbullah militia in Lebanon by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. This includes infrared guided missiles and bombs, the armour-piercing headed projectiles fired at British APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers) and other vehicles, as well as mines and roadside bombs, used against British troops patrolling Basra.

"All of the British deaths are linked to Iranian technology," a British diplomat said, abandoning the usual Foreign Office reserve.

The official said Iran's motive for stirring violence in Iraq was to "tie down" American and British troops to reduce the prospect of military action against Iran.

It was also seen as a warning to Britain to ease the political pressure over Tehran's nuclear programme. Within hours of Britain criticising Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech to the UN, where he asserted his nation's right to nuclear technology, two British special forces soldiers were arrested in Southern Iraq by Iraqi police. British troops had to intervene after the two were handed over to Iranian backed Shi'a Militia. An ugly confrontation with a large crowed followed and television cameras transmitted the images of British soldiers in flames as their vehicles were attacked by an angry mob.

Iraqi politicians and the Bush administration too have been making accusations that cast grave doubt on Iran's motives.

In his joint conference with President Talabani, Prime Minister Tony Blair said evidence pointed to Iran or its Lebanese Hizbullah allies as the source of sophisticated explosives used in roadside bombs in Iraq, although he admitted Britain had no concrete proof. His comments prompted British military officials and the right-wing press to demand Blair issue a formal warning to Iran.

Relations between Tehran and the West have deteriorated since the election in June of President Ahmadinejad, which strengthened the hand of the hardliners, who are now believed to be in full charge of the nuclear programme.

Like the Pakistan-India 1998 nuclear race proved, the population favours nuclear status. Confronting western objections (with Israel the loudest in warning of an 'imminent' Iranian nuclear threat) diverts the population's focus away from domestic issues, such as the economy and human rights.

Publishing scenarios of a military strike to cripple Iran's nuclear capabilities such as the one executed by Israel in its 1981 raid on Iraq, undoubtedly gained Tehran wider sympathy among Muslims. …