Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Sun News | 09/26/2004 | U.S. targets Iran's influence in Iraq

The Sun News | 09/26/2004 | U.S. targets Iran's influence in Iraq: "U.S. targets Iran's influence in Iraq

Steps weighed to counter political pull

By Robin Wright and Justin Blum
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is exploring several steps aimed at containing Tehran's growing influence in Iraq, according to U.S. officials, who say a split between the Pentagon and the State Department has paralyzed the administration's ability to craft a long-term policy on Iran for three years.

As one measure, the United States has earmarked $40 million to help Iraq's political parties mobilize - and, subtly, to counter Iran's support for its allies in an emerging race to influence the outcome, U.S. officials said.

With the election in Iraq four months away, the administration has grown increasingly alarmed about the resources Tehran is pouring into Iraq's well-organized Shiite religious parties, which give them an edge over struggling moderate and nonsectarian parties, the officials said.

In the past year, Iran has provided tens of millions of dollars and other material support to a range of Iraqi parties, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Islamic Dawa Party and rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, U.S. officials say. The U.S. funds will, in theory, be available to all Iraqi parties, although the U.S. goal is to bolster the prospects of secular groups, on the premise that Iranian-backed parties are unlikely to turn to America for training or money, U.S. officials said.

In another diplomatic move aimed partly at Iran, the United States has been promoting a plan for a conference that would bring the United States together with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, plus representatives of the European Union, the Group of Eight industrialized nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Secretary of State Colin Powell lobbied for the conference last week at the United Nations, knowing it would provide a setting in which he and Iran's foreign minister could participate, U.S. officials said. The meeting is tentatively planned for mid-November, after the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in Egypt.

"It's not an attempt to open a channel to Iran. It's a way to talk about how all Iraq's neighbors and special friends and others can help the Iraqi government, and that includes Iran," said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing diplomacy. "It's about how to be responsible neighbors, and one of our concerns is that Iran is not being a responsible neighbor. It's a way of addressing one of the issues we have with Iran."

The two moves follow a decision by the administration's top foreign-policy team this summer to initiate steps to prevent Iran from gaining a major behind-the-scenes role in shaping the Iraqi government scheduled to be elected in January, U.S. officials said. But they also reflect U.S. recognition that attempts to keep Iran out of Iraq, given strong religious, geographic and ethnic ties dating back centuries, are likely to fail and could even backfire, U.S. officials said.

"The idea that you can prevent Iran from having influence or playing a role is totally misplaced, given connections between the clergy, geographic proximity, a long border, family connections, the large community of Shiites from Iran and all the mullahs who studied in the same schools under the same teachers," said Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University, an expert on Iran and author of "The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution.""

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