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Iran and U.S. Starting a New Dance

Though labeled part of an 'axis of evil' by President Bush, Tehran is trying to reposition itself quietly as a friend to West and foe of Iraq.

March 09, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — Like any good guest, the new British ambassador here brought a present when he visited the cleric who heads Iran's chief foreign policy agency. It was far more important than a keepsake, flowers or pastry.

It was a message.

According to diplomats, envoy Richard Dalton reassured Iranians that there would be no place in a postwar Iraq for the militant group Moujahedeen Khalq, which is dedicated to overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who fought an eight-year war against this nation in the 1980s, provides shelter and support for the group.

The cleric, Hassan Rowhani of the Supreme National Security Council, smiled at the news, which diplomats say also reflected the U.S. position. The Bush administration has labeled Moujahedeen Khalq a terrorist organization.

"This is a good sign," said a senior Iranian official. "Iran's concerns are being heard."

On the surface, it appears strange for a Western power to be reassuring Iran -- a member, along with Iraq and North Korea, of President Bush's "axis of evil." But Iran and the U.S., which was once branded the Great Satan here, are rediscovering an old adage: The friend of my enemy is my enemy, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

For months, Iran has discreetly accommodated U.S. plans to invade Hussein's nation, by aiding Iraqi dissidents and even helping to prevent oil smuggling by Iraq.

Both moves have hurt Hussein's regime while allowing Iran to present a constructive face to the West in hopes of broadening political ties to Europe and discouraging U.S. perceptions of the Islamic Republic as a threat.

The policy, termed "active neutrality" here, has had its difficult moments for this predominantly Shiite Muslim country. Iran, torn between fundamentalists and a restive population seeking political reform, cannot be seen as actively aiding the West, even against Iraq, a traditional enemy controlled by rival Sunni Muslims.

"After almost 25 years of chanting anti-U.S. slogans, we can't turn around and fight alongside America," said a senior Iranian official. "Even Kuwait can't announce that it's doing this. That's just the reality of the region."

The presence of an armed Iraqi opposition group inside Iran poses an added challenge for Tehran: how to back the fighters' ambitions in Iraq without running afoul of the U.S.

Iranian policymakers hope a cloak of ambiguity will enable their country to reap the political capital of accommodation to the West while keeping its Islamic credentials intact.

"When talking to Muslims, Iran is against war. But when talking to the West, it favors Iraq's disarmament and compliance with Security Council resolutions," said a senior Western diplomat in Tehran, who like many of those interviewed asked to remain anonymous.

Iran's immediate agenda, diplomats say, is to have a key role in any decisions about a postwar Iraq, to consolidate its position in the region and to deepen relations with Europe. These goals would strengthen ties to nations friendly with the U.S. that could lobby on Tehran's behalf should hawks in Washington advocate going after Iran.

"This is not proactive diplomacy. It's damage control," said an Iranian analyst.

Iran began preparing for the aftermath of war early last year, according to officials and diplomats, when Tehran concluded that a U.S. invasion of Iraq was inevitable. The clerical regime also wanted to avoid repeating mistakes involving Afghanistan.

During the Afghan conflict, the Iranian government worked with the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance militia and shared valuable intelligence that helped produce a swift American victory in late 2001, only to have Bush deliver his "axis of evil" judgment a month later.

"The fall of Saddam would be good news for the Iranian people and the people of the region," said Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi in an interview here last week. "But the region's problems need to be solved in an international framework, not by the unipolar impulse of the United States."

For more than a year, the bimonthly meetings of the Supreme National Security Council have debated American objectives in seeking to drive Hussein from power, along with Iraq's possible responses and what brand of neutrality could best promote Iran's interests.

"What we want from Iran is not confusing or demanding," said a U.S. official in Washington.

What the U.S. wants is for Iran to not complicate an already dangerous area by getting militarily involved. Iran has trained and armed a Shiite Muslim organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose military wing is seeking to deploy 5,000 guerrillas in northern Iraq. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in London last month, he carried an American request that Iran keep the fighters, known as the Badr Brigade, out of the north, according to Arab diplomats in the region.

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