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Iran seen as key to untangling Iraq

Tehran favors a regional approach, and it has the clout to settle the conflict or block U.S. aims, some analysts say.

February 13, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — Iranian officials Monday called U.S. accusations that Tehran is arming Shiite militias in Iraq with tank-piercing explosives "unfounded," and said that Iran was committed to joining a regional effort to halt the tightening spiral of violence.

But the back-and-forth charges between Tehran and Washington highlight a growing recognition of Iran's substantial influence on its next-door neighbor and its ability, if nothing else, to prevent the U.S. from untangling the political conflicts that have plunged Iraq into mounting sectarian warfare.

Here in the capital of the Islamic Republic, it is an open secret that Iran is operating a quiet network of influence in Iraq that it can use either to help settle the conflict or to prevent the U.S. from reaching its goals there. Iranian officials say they are committed to quelling the instability they see as a threat to their own security.

Indeed, Iranians say, their image of an ideal settlement in Iraq looks remarkably like America's: a strong, democratically elected government in Baghdad -- that would, by dint of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, be a natural ally of Tehran -- an end to the violence, and preservation of territorial integrity.

But with one important exception.

"The difference is Iran doesn't want to see the U.S. claim victory. The U.S. shouldn't come out of this battle victorious. And Iranians perceive that the dominant part of that objective has been achieved," Tehran political scientist Nasser Hadian said. "It is no longer plausible for the U.S. to claim victory in Iraq."

American defense and intelligence officials' claims to have found Iranian-manufactured weapons in Iraq, including armor-piercing projectiles believed to have killed about 170 troops from the U.S.-led coalition, have placed a heightened focus on the Bush administration's long-standing allegations of Iranian involvement in the war.

In Washington, a U.S. official acknowledged Monday that the U.S. material formed a "circumstantial" case, but said military commanders in Baghdad provided solid evidence of Iranian involvement.

"So while they presented a circumstantial case, I would put to you that it was a very strong circumstantial case," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "The Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity, very clearly, based on the information that was provided over the weekend in Baghdad."

In Australia, the Voice of America reported, U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday that there was no proof that Iran's government was involved in providing bomb-making materials to Iraqi militants.

"It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it's clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit," Pace was quoted as saying.

In Iran, the dispute serves to spotlight a belief that America is using what Tehran views as its natural influence on its neighbor as an opportunity to use Iran as a scapegoat for U.S. failures in its Iraq policy.

"Right now, I think the United States wants to find someone to share this loss. Because they have indeed lost," said Mosayeb Naimi, a Tehran newspaper editor with long experience in the Arab world.

"The problem in Iraq is not just the Mahdi army militia or Al Qaeda or any of the other military groups. It's [that] the Americans lack a strategy to govern Iraq," he said. "Today, many of the groups of Iraq are making war against each other, and it's clear that Iran is more worried about security and safety in Iraq than the United States is. Because when violence increases in Iraq, it means the violence comes to Iran also. So it's not unreasonable that Iran is increasing its [presence] there."

Iranian officials went out of their way to discount the evidence of weapons without issuing a specific, direct denial.

"They condemn us for making problems in Iraq, but they don't have any documentary proof," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hossaini told reporters.

"Lots of this evidence is fake, artificial. For example, when they wanted to start a war in Iraq, they made plenty of evidence that there were lots of weapons in Iraq, though the investigators of the International Atomic Energy Agency said they couldn't find any weapons in Iraq," he said. "Right now they're using weapons [with certain markings], but it doesn't prove where these weapons came from."

But political scientist Hadian said it was relatively well known that Tehran had developed a substantial network of support and resources in Iraq for use as a deterrent should the U.S. threaten aggression against Iran.

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