Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Flexes Its 'Soft Power' in Iraq ; in a Sign of Warming Ties, Iran's Foreign Minister Finished a High Level, Three-Day Visit to Iraq Thursday

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Flexes Its 'Soft Power' in Iraq ; in a Sign of Warming Ties, Iran's Foreign Minister Finished a High Level, Three-Day Visit to Iraq Thursday

Article excerpt

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite leader, never meets with American officials. But when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi arrived in Iraq this week, the revered Iranian-born cleric threw open his doors.

Their meeting revealed the warmth that met the foreign minister during his three-day visit, which sometimes felt more like a family reunion than a meeting of leaders of nations that fought throughout the 1980s, at the cost of 1 million dead and wounded. The trip that ended Thursday also underscored a US policy dilemma in Iraq.

"You've got two different trajectories, and I don't think the Americans have come to this realization," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, contacted in Tehran. "The Americans have hard power in Iraq, but the Iranians have soft power, and they are able to do things. It is a much more subtle influence than the Americans."

Preaching the merits of stability and democracy for Iraq - and trying to dispel accusations from the US and previous interim Iraqi officials of interfering in Iraqi affairs - Mr. Kharrazi staked Iran's claim as Iraq's neighbor of greatest influence.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq two days earlier. But Iraq's new government, formed on April 28, also has very close ties to Iran, often developed with Iraq's new leaders during years of exile when the Islamic Republic supported their struggle against Saddam Hussein.

"For US policy, it's going to be difficult to forge a strong alliance with Iraq, while at the same time antagonizing Iran," says Mr. Sadjadpour.

Senior US officials in the past have made clear their interest in pursuing regime change in Iran, and the US government considers Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. President Bush lists Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

But Iran shares an 800-mile border with Iraq, and the new government is run by Shiites who share a religious affinity with Iran, and constitute more than 60 percent of Iraq's population. Kharrazi is the first senior official from any of Iraq's six neighbors to visit the new government.

Senior US officials now play down concerns about Iran's role in Iraq, especially compared to that of Syria. Despite close ties with Iran, senior Iraqi officials "are Iraqis first and foremost," Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick told journalists in Baghdad Thursday. "There is undoubtedly influence ... [but] what Iraq is doing is urging all its neighbors to be supportive."

After Mr. Hussein's fall, interim Iraqi leaders accused Iran of opening its borders to militants crossing into Iraq and supporting the insurgency. Analysts say that in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, Iran believed that it might be the US's next target, and so set up networks that could apply pressure in Iraq, if a decision was made to do so.

Iran analysts described Tehran's aim as "managed chaos," a tricky balancing act that would keep US forces and officials tied down in Iraq, but not spark the kind of breakdown that would threaten Iran. That undeclared policy seems to have shifted during the Iraq election period last January, which brought the current Iran- friendly government to power.

"We will not allow terrorists to use our lands to access Iraq," Kharrazi told his hosts. "We will watch our borders and will arrest infiltrators, because securing Iraq is securing [Iran]. …

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