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Iran-Iraq Relationship: Further Destabilizing the Middle East?

(Washington, D.C. -- March 19, 2006) The increased involvement of Iran in Iraq's affairs should deeply concern the international community, according to two experts on the region. Former U.S. State Department Iraq analysis team head Wayne White and RFE/RL Regional Analysis Coordinator for Southwest Asia and the Middle East A. William Samii told a recent RFE/RL briefing audience that Iran, under its new President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, appears to be maintaining an "adventurous foreign policy" that has included arming militias in Iraq and contributing to that country's instability.

Iran does not deny its support for Iraqi political groups, according to Samii, but it also has economic interests in Iraq. Last November, for example, Iran sponsored a trade and reconstruction conference for Iraq. Samii went on to say that Iranian ties with Iraq also can be linked with the cities of Najaf and Karbala, two of Shia Islam's holiest places. In addition to using its political, economic, and religious ties, Iran tries to influence Iraqi affairs by sponsoring Arabic-language radio and television broadcasts. Roughly 20 stations originating in Iran are audible in Iraq, although some of these transmit in Persian. Samii cited the U.S. State Department's statement that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) were involved in the "planning and support of terrorist acts and continued to exhort a variety of groups to use terrorism in pursuit of their goals." The revolutionary impulse is translated into policy in the Iranian constitution, Samii said, but this is counter-balanced by pragmatism and geopolitical considerations.

Samii pointed out that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has publicly said that Iraq feels no hostility from Iran, although other members of the Iraqi government have faulted Iran with meddling in Iraq's internal affairs. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently said that Iran was putting people into Iraq that "are doing harm" by provoking violence and political instability.

White, who is now an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute, said that he did not believe that Iraq will become an Islamic Republic like Iran, and hopes that Iran will come to realize it must help to stabilize the situation in Iraq. White said Iran has participated in gunrunning on the Iraq-Iran border, supports Muqtada al-Sadr's Shia militia, and provides weapons to Iraqi insurgents. Iran's motive, said White, is a desire to keep the United States "pinned down in Iraq," and possibly to see the "defeat of the U.S. in Iraq." White expressed concern that the various militias in Iraq have not yet been dismantled, and said that the "Badr Corps should be restrained by Iranian influence."

White said that, if the violence in Iraq, including sectarian conflict, continues, "Tehran could get dragged into a regional confrontation" with predominantly Sunni Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt, who might intervene to defend Iraq's Sunni community. The Iraq-Iran war, according to White, remains a sensitive issue to the Sunni Arab community and continues to exert a profound impact on its relations with Iran.

Archived audio of this briefing can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.