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Tone on Iran role in Iraq softened

U.S. officials back off the accusations of arms smuggling and plan to talk. It could be each side needs the other.

December 01, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Not long ago, U.S. military officials in Iraq routinely displayed rockets, mortars and jagged chunks of metal to reporters and insisted that they were Iranian-made arms being fired at American bases. Collaboration between Tehran and Washington on stabilizing Iraq seemed doubtful at best.

In the last two months, though, there has been a shift in U.S. military and diplomatic attitudes toward Iran. Officials have backed away from sweeping accusations that the Iranian leadership is orchestrating massive smuggling of arms, agents and ammunition. Instead, they have agreed to a new round of talks with Iranian and Iraqi officials over security in Iraq. The meeting is expected to take place this month.

The U.S. also freed nine Iranian men last month, some of whom it had been holding since 2004. Iran denied U.S. accusations that many of them had been assisting anti-U.S. militias in Iraq, and had demanded their release in a series of testy exchanges with U.S. officials.

When the U.S. freed them, it did not allude to the Iranian demands. It said only that they no longer posed a threat.

Pentagon officials and analysts cite several reasons for the change, including U.S. concern that provoking Iran could set off a confrontation that military commanders are keen to avoid, and the realization that better relations with Iran would help stabilize Iraq.

"I do think that the military and civilian leadership in Washington has by and large come to the realization that it's going to be impossible to stabilize Iraq without Iran's positive contribution or cooperation," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Iraq also has served both Iran and the U.S. as a proxy battlefield for their dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions, and it may serve both sides now in tamping down the tensions.

Washington hard-liners have suggested that military force be used against Iran over its refusal to drop its nuclear enrichment program, and linking Iran to the violence in Iraq could bolster their case for military action. Analysts say the U.S. shift reflects the increased assertiveness of more moderate military and civilian forces concerned about a possible backlash from Iran at a time when the U.S. military is badly stretched. Meanwhile, analysts say Iran may be looking for ways to avoid more international sanctions against its nuclear program.

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Decline in attacks

Since October, when attacks on American forces in Iraq dropped dramatically over previous months, U.S. commanders have been acknowledging that Tehran appears to be keeping a promise made to Iraq's government to control arms smuggling over the border. They are far from lavishing praise on the Iranian leadership, but their comments are a turnabout from the Iran-bashing of previous months.

The change has been echoed in the senior military leadership, particularly by the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, and the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Navy Adm. William J. Fallon.

Both four-star admirals have given interviews in recent weeks in which they downplayed suggestions that the United States was preparing to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Their comments were noteworthy because they came at the same time the White House, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, had been delivering bellicose warnings against Tehran.

In an interview Nov. 12 with the Financial Times, Fallon described such rhetoric as "not particularly helpful."

Mullen has been more circumspect in public, but Pentagon officials familiar with his thinking say he is concerned about provoking extremist elements within the Iranian regime, which could make things worse in Iraq.

"You're just expanding the violence in the region instead of controlling it, essentially opening another front in the war," one military officer said, describing Mullen's thinking.

The military still remains wary of Iran's involvement in Iraq. Last Saturday, a military spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith, alleged that rogue militiamen backed by Iran were responsible for a market bombing in Baghdad a day earlier that killed as many as 15 people.

But Smith emphasized that he was not blaming Iran's government for the market blast. Rather, he said that people arrested in connection with it were members of a cell historically backed by Iranian elements.

At a Baghdad briefing Nov. 15, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James Simmons told reporters there was no recent evidence that the roadside bombs that caused most American deaths were still crossing Iran's border.

"We believe that the initiatives and the commitments that the Iranians have made appear to be holding up," he said.

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