- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

TEHRAN An icon that appeared at a popular Tehran restaurant recently would have caused a riot a few years ago: The Iraqi flag had been placed to hold a table for a group of Iraqi diplomats with dinner reservations.
But the anger toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein still runs so deeply that most observers believe Iran would sit out a U.S.-led attack on Iraq and watch with satisfaction as its long-despised neighbor is put down for good.
"Despite superficial warming, the relationship between Iran and Iraq is as hostile and as mistrustful as ever," said Gary Sick, a Middle East analyst at Columbia University who served on President Carter's National Security Council.
"In the event of a U.S.-Iraq military encounter, I would expect Iran to maintain official neutrality as it did before or even to cooperate tacitly with the U.S. as it did in Afghanistan."
While sitting out the war with just some perfunctory anti-American rhetoric, Iran would become much more concerned once the fighting was over, most analysts say. They believe the Tehran regime would use its influence with Iraq's Shi'ite opposition to try to affect the shape of the post-Saddam Iraq.
The mullahs would worry in particular that a pro-American Iraq could be used as a staging ground for removing their own clerical regime, which is accused by the United States of supporting terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
If Iraq comes under U.S. influence, Iran will be bordered by pro-American governments to its east and west, as well as in the Persian Gulf.
"The internal Iranian debate is whether it's preferable to have a weakened Saddam remaining in power versus a new pro-American Iraqi regime headed by [Iraqi opposition leader] Ahmed Chalabi," says Nader Hashemi, a Middle East specialist at the University of Toronto.
"Should this happen, the obvious question emerges: After regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq, could Iran be the next target?"
When the United States attacked Iraq during the Gulf war, Iran kept mostly quiet, pleased that Saddam, with whom it had just completed one of the bloodiest wars in modern history, was getting his comeuppance.
Today, Iran and Iraq have patched up some of their differences. The two have exchanged the remains of war dead, and up to 50,000 Iranians travel each year to Shi'ite shrine in southern Iraq.
In January, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri visited Iran, shaking hands with his Iranian counterparts and making a pilgrimage to Mashad, a holy Iranian city. He predicted that Iranians soon would be able to fly directly from Tehran to Baghdad.
Iran, like most countries, officially opposes any military assault on Iraq. "We believe that attacking Iraq or any other country on the pretext of fighting terrorism does not solve any of the world's problems," Iranian Vice President Mohammed Abtahi told reporters in Beirut last week.
But it was only about a year ago that Iran fired 56 missiles into Iraqi territory in an attack on Iranian opposition groups, reportedly causing six civilian casualties. In fact, each country still hosts and supports violent opposition groups dedicated to the other's demise.
To some extent, Iraq and Iran have to deal with each other. "There is a convergence of interest between Iran and Iraq on certain issues that forces a limited degree of cooperation," says Mr. Hashemi.
But no one within the bitterly divided Iranian government has any love for the Baghdad regime.
For the hard-liners, Saddam remains the butcher of Baghdad who invaded Iran, bombed Tehran and slaughtered thousands of Shi'ite Muslims in the months after the Gulf war. For the reformists, he is the antithesis of the pluralism they espouse.
"For Iran, it's better for [Saddam] to go," says Karim Arghandepour, an editor of Nowrouz, a reformist daily. "We are obligated to defend the forces of Iraqi democracy."
But U.S.-Iranian tensions will re-emerge once Saddam is gone. Iran remains keenly interested in the future of Iraq. As in Afghanistan, large segments of the Iraqi Shi'ite opposition are sympathetic toward Iran.


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