Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Courts Rival Iraq to Gang Up on US Mideast Peace at Stake If Saddam Accepts Treaty Offer

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Courts Rival Iraq to Gang Up on US Mideast Peace at Stake If Saddam Accepts Treaty Offer

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON'S crushing "containment" of Iraq and Iran -- Mideast states seen as military threats -- may be fusing them together.

Iran, after being slapped with a tightened economic embargo by the United States, is exploring an alliance with its neighbor and former enemy Iraq.

It sent an 11-person delegation here last week, and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayti will soon visit Baghdad.

The beleaguered Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein is taking a cautious approach to Iran's overture, but appears to be going along with Tehran's move in the hope that it could pressure the United Nations into lifting its four-year-old trade embargo on Iraq.

Inflation and a recent cut in government food rations have put basic foodstuffs beyond the reach of ordinary Iraqis. The largest bank note is worth 10 US cents, and people carry bricks of notes in shopping bags to make even simple purchases.

If Tehran's drive for a peace treaty with Iraq succeeds, it could challenge the US in its "dual containment" of the two countries.

"There is no doubt that a meeting between Saddam and Iran's Hashemi Rafsanjani would be the diplomatic coup of the century," says a European diplomat in Jordan who monitors events in Iraq. "Any kind of rapprochement between Islamist Iran -- with its leadership position in the world Islamic revolution -- and Iraq would send some rather alarming signals to the West."

An Iran-Iraq alliance could threaten the uneasy balance that has existed in the region since the defeat of Saddam in the 1991 Gulf war, and could damage Mideast peace talks. But some diplomats say that Iran's overtures are driven more by its need to counter US sanctions than by a genuine desire for peace with Iraq.

"There has been a slow improvement in relations between the two countries, but I don't think that Iran and Iraq have sufficiently gotten over the eight-year war to be driven into each other's arms," says a second foreign diplomat in Amman.

In downtown Baghdad, the heavily guarded Iraq headquarters of the Mujahideen Khalq -- an Iranian opposition group intent on overthrowing the religious leadership in Iran -- tends to lend credence to this view that achieving a peace accord between the two countries could take some time. But diplomats in Baghdad insist there is a new seriousness about the Iranian peace initiative.

Iraq stands to gain from new trade routes through Iran and outlets for its oil exports, which have been almost brought to a halt by the UN embargo.

Iraq's recent efforts to lure potential trade partners to an international oil conference to break international solidarity on sanctions have backfired.

The UN Security Council cut off that possibility in March by offering Iraq an interim deal that would allow the country to sell $2 billion of its oil for humanitarian assistance to the country's civilian population. …

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