- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

As talks for forming a post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq shape up, Iran fears being left out of a major political development in the region that will have an impact on Tehran as well.
Iran fought a 10-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. Iraq also has a large Shi'ite population, which looks to Iran for protection whenever it faces persecution at home. Iran is the world's only Shi'ite state and has been actively supporting Shi'ite minorities in nearby countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 brought U.S. forces to the region, causing a direct threat to the radical Islamic government in Iran, which overthrew its U.S.-installed shah and opposed U.S. influence in the Middle East.
In 1997, however, Iranian reformist Mohammed Khatami was elected president with an overwhelming majority. He was re-elected with a larger majority four years later.
Mr. Khatami's government wants to roll back the extremist policies of the clerical governments that have ruled the country since the revolution of 1979. He favors improving relations with the West, particularly the United States, and fears that if Iran continues to opt out of the U.S.-led talks on Iraq, it will be further isolated in the region.
In order to break Iran's isolation, the Iranian government has allowed several Iraqi opposition leaders to visit the country for consultations with Iran-based Iraqi Shi'ite groups.
On Monday, two such leaders Ahmad Chalabi and Masoud Barzani met Ayatollah Mohammed Baqar al-Hakim, who heads the main Shi'ite opposition group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
SCIRI is an umbrella organization for a number of Shi'ite Islamic groups, including some that have in the past coordinated activities with Iran's intelligence services. The group maintains an office in Tehran that is paid for by the Iranian government.
Mr. Chalabi leads the Iraqi National Congress, while Mr. Barzani heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The KDP is one of two Kurdish parties that control Kurdish northern Iraq, under the protection of the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone.
"In the meeting, the two sides reviewed the possible scenario in Iraq after the fall of Saddam and discussed ways and means to establish and promote ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran," KDP representative Ebrahim Pirut told Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency.
Mr. Barzani arrived in Tehran on Saturday "to discuss Iraq's future with Iranian officials, as well as with Iraqi opposition leaders," IRNA said.
On Sunday, the Kurdish leader met the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, who urged the Iraqi opposition to maintain unity. Mr. Karroubi said that "Iraq's independence and territorial integrity" must be protected code for Iran's long-standing opposition to the creation of a separate Kurdish state in Iraq.
To forestall creation of a Kurdish state, the Iranians have also been discouraging Iraqi Shi'ites from demanding a separate state for themselves.
Jalal Talabani the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the other main Iraqi Kurdish party may also visit Iran in the near future, IRNA said.
The negotiations among various Iraqi groups precede a major opposition gathering in London to hammer out a power-sharing setup to replace Saddam. More than 300 delegates from six Iraqi opposition parties are to attend this meeting, which begins Friday.
IRNA also mentioned media reports that after Saddam's fall, Washington may appoint one of its own generals to oversee the formation of a new government in Iraq.
"Iraqi rebel groups, however, have expressed their opposition to any U.S. interference in the country's future," the report said.
Iran's decision to allow Kurdish rebel leaders to confer with Iraqi Shi'ite leaders indicates a major change in Tehran's policy toward the Kurds.
Like Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria have significant Kurdish minorities and fear that the creation of a Kurdish state in Iraq could be destabilizing. That is why Iran has always opposed the idea of a separate Kurdish homeland, and in the past has tried to prevent Kurdish leaders from getting together.
But apparently, fear of being left out of a new setup in Baghdad proved stronger than the fear of troubles in the country's Kurdish enclave.
Consulting Kurdish rebels is also seen as another moderating influence of the Khatami government on Iran's policies.
Despite the electoral defeat of the parties that support their rule, Iran's clerical establishment has retained its control over the armed forces and other powerful state apparatus, impeding Mr. Khatami's efforts to reform Iran.
On Nov. 6, the country's religious courts sentenced a reformist college professor, Hashem Aghajari, to death for demanding religious reforms.
The clerics also oppose Mr. Khatami's moves to improve relations with the West, but observers say that by allowing Kurdish rebels to visit Tehran, Mr. Khatami has created a difficult situation for the hard-liners: If Iranian hard-liners oppose the consultations with the Iraqi Kurds, they might later be blamed for opting out of talks on a development with far-reaching consequences for Iran.
However, the hard-liners are also aware that several Iraqi opposition groups, particularly the Kurds, enjoy strong U.S. support. Most of them attended an all-party meeting held in Washington in August and agreed to work with the United States to topple Saddam.
Some of Iran's hard-line clerics fear that engaging Iraqi opposition groups would open a channel for talks with the United States, and the reformists may avail themselves of such an opportunity.
At the same time, Iranian leaders are convinced that the United States has decided to bring in a new government in Iraq, even if Saddam complies with the U.N. resolutions. And they want to make sure that the Iraqi government is at least not hostile to Iran.

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