Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Daily Times - Troublemaking in Iraq is two-edged sword for Iran

Daily Times - Site Edition: "Troublemaking in Iraq is two-edged sword for Iran

By Alistair Lyon

Analysts say Iran is certainly seeking influence in Iraq, as in other countries like Afghanistan and Lebanon, but will act cautiously unless severely provoked by Washington

THE temptation for Iran is clear. Inflict pain on the Americans in Iraq in response to mounting US pressure over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

But stirring up too much trouble could endanger Iran’s own strong interest in having a stable neighbour, analysts say. “The great worry about the Bush administration is that they will decide now is the time to move on to the next adventure, which is Iran,” British defence expert Tim Garden said.

“They might mount military strikes on nuclear facilities, irritating the Iranians enough to be more active in Iraq.”

The United States and Israel are Iran’s most vocal accusers, vowing not to let Tehran acquire atomic weapons. Iran says it has no such goal, but it has defied Saturday’s call by the UN nuclear agency that it freeze all uranium enrichment activities.

Iraq’s defence minister has accused Iran of arming Shi’ite rebels who battled US and Iraqi forces in Najaf last month, but interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said this week the Iranian government was not necessarily involved. Some in Washington and London say Iran has sent intelligence agents across the border and is nurturing contacts with, if not funding and arming, a range of Shi’ite and Kurdish groups.

Nevertheless Iran has recognised Iraq’s US-backed interim government and analysts say Tehran cannot afford to alienate top Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who brokered a peace deal in Najaf and advocates elections, not violence.

“After Sistani’s intervention, even those looking for trouble are being very careful,” said an Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named. He said Iranian leaders were also wary of meddling in Iraq because they feared Washington could make Iran a scapegoat for its failure there.

“At this stage, Iran’s objective is to promote stability,” said Gary Sick, a professor at New York’s Columbia University. “The last thing they want is civil war in Iraq.”

Constraints on Iran: Iran is certainly seeking influence in Iraq, as in other countries like Afghanistan and Lebanon, but will act cautiously unless severely provoked by Washington, analysts said. “If the confrontation gets out of hand in terms of economic or political sanctions, Iran might begin to use its influence to play a spoiling role in Iraq,” said Gary Samore, of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“But they don’t have a free hand. They are limited by the interest of the Shi’ites in cooperating with the Americans (on elections),” he said. “They could stir up resentment as well as trouble - there is a nationalistic Arab element in Iraq.”

Samore said Iran could still restore the suspension of enrichment activities and could defer a final decision until after the US presidential election on November 2.

For now, the United States is pursuing diplomatic options, eager to have the International Atomic Energy Agency report Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

Iran has threatened to bar spot checks of its nuclear sites if its case goes to the Security Council, or pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if sanctions are imposed.

Iran analyst Ali Ansari said UN sanctions would backfire on the world economy if they targeted Iranian oil exports. “The oil price is likely to go through the roof if Iran’s oil is embargoed,” he said.

British role: Britain, Washington’s main ally in Iraq, has sought to show that diplomacy can persuade Iran to prove that its nuclear intentions are peaceful, without military action or sanctions. But Tehran has angered European heavyweights Britain, France and Germany by reneging on its promise to suspend all uranium enrichment activities in exchange for improved economic ties.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, dogged by criticism over Iraq, faces an election next year and may want to fend off any fresh controversy over military action or sanctions on Iran.

“What we want is for Iran not to have nuclear weapons,” a government spokesman said. “The best way to achieve this is to have a strong, united international community continuing to tell Iran it must give us confidence it is not seeking them.” But if George W Bush wins re-election, hawks in his administration and in Israel may lost patience with diplomacy. The United States plans to sell Israel 500 “bunker busters” and other bombs - weapons that could hit Iran’s underground nuclear sites - Israeli security sources said on Tuesday. reuters

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