Friday, July 23, 2004

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: AP - Middle East: Iraq border issue reveals Iran concerns

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: AP - Middle East: Iraq border issue reveals Iran concerns: "Iraq border issue reveals Iran concerns


CAIRO, Egypt -- Iran is eager to work with senior Arab security officials on stopping the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, a sign that Tehran wants a role in sculpting the new Iraq and is concerned about accusations it harbors terrorists, analysts say.

The new cooperation also shows just how much fear there is of an unstable Iraq, a stronger Islamic extremist network and an angry United States in a region where regimes often shelter each other's opponents.

On Wednesday, Iraq proposed an eight-nation conference to discuss the issue and Iran agreed to host it. Iraq's five other neighbors and Egypt also will attend, but no date has been set.

Such a gathering in Tehran would be unprecedented after decades of animosity between Iran and some of the nations it has invited - including a 1980-1988 war with Iraq. But it is expected to be only the first of regular meetings.

Officials realize it may take time for high-level exchanges to have any calming effect on Iraq, where foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents are fighting U.S.-led forces and the U.S.-backed interim government.

Still, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Europe's envoy to the region both said they were satisfied, for now. The EU's Javier Solana, who was in Cairo to encourage Iraq's neighbors to help, said "things are going at the pace they can go."

Iranian analysts say Iran's offer to host the meeting is a message, especially to the United States, that Iran understands al-Qaida is a threat to Iraq and itself, and that it wants the situation in Iraq to improve.

"Iran wants to show that it is willing to have a better and more positive position on Iraq," said Saeed Laylaz, a political and security analyst in Tehran. "It is, of course, a message to the new Iraqi government and the United States (that) al-Qaida is a threat ... but it is also a card in a game ... (in which) we are trying to keep a very sensitive balance."

Laylaz noted Iran, Iraq and Turkey all have political, ethnic and religious interests in Iraq and a history of supporting each other's opposition groups. "They are all strong enough to destabilize each other, and they are all threatened by al-Qaida," he said.

It is in their interest, he said, "to keep each other peaceful and satisfied."

Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law and former Iranian diplomat, said holding the meeting in Iran indicates Tehran can play a key role in Iraq's political development.

Iraq has asked its other direct neighbors as well - Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - to ensure secure borders, and has said Saudis and Jordanians as well as Iranians, Syrians and Egyptians are among foreign fighters detained in Iraq.

The biggest problem has been the long, porous borders with Iran and Syria. Also, Iran's influence in Iraq - which like Iran is predominantly Shiite Muslim - is far greater than Syria's, so it makes sense to have Iran take a leading role in high-level security cooperation, Laylaz said.

In recent weeks, the United States has stepped up demands on Iran do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq and accused Tehran of meddling.

Tehran doesn't deal directly with Washington - which accuses it of trying to build a nuclear bomb and, in a report released Thursday, of providing safe passage to the al-Qaida terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

But Iran has deported terror suspects to countries in the Islamic world that are on good terms with the United States.

Conflicting political, religious and ethnic interests and vastly different relationships with Washington have made it difficult for Arab nations to cooperate on Iraq. The task is compounded by their suspicions of the interim Iraqi government, which Iran and Syria consider a Washington puppet regime.

Zebari said Arab leaders welcomed Iraq's proposal for cooperation because they know that giving militants full rein to flourish now could hurt them in the future.

"They recognize that the situation can backfire on them. There is a limit on how far they can be indifferent," Zebari told The Associated Press. "I made that point very clear to them."

But he acknowledges getting the government ministers and security chiefs together, deciding what steps to take, sharing the necessary information and ultimately getting results on the ground will take time.

In the meantime, Zebari said, Iraq will continue to insist on other, unspecified steps to stem the flow of foreign fighters.

"All of them accepted to work with us on this issue, so it's up to us, really, to go back to them and approach them specifically on our requirements," he said. "And I think they will cooperate.""


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