- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2004

Iran stepped into the diplomatic spotlight yesterday when it was revealed that the United States and two of its coalition partners, Britain and Italy, had sought Tehran’s help in dealing with the volatile security situation in Iraq.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi disclosed the rare contact between Tehran and Washington, which broke diplomatic relations in November 1979, when militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

“There has been a lot of correspondence with the U.S. about Iraq,” Mr. Kharrazi told reporters in Tehran. “Naturally, there are such requests from the U.S. that we help improve the situation in Iraq, and we are making efforts in this regard.”

Although Mr. Kharrazi sent a senior aide to Iraq yesterday, he said the dialogue with U.S. officials “has stopped because we felt we were going nowhere.” He accused the United States of breaking its promises and “taking a wrong path.” He also noted that the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. diplomatic interests in the Islamic republic, played a mediating role in the recent exchanges.

In Washington, U.S. officials said it was Britain that invited the Iranian delegation to help calm the security situation in southern Iraq. The United States went along with the proposal, but it did not ask Britain to extend the invitation.

“They were invited by the British,” a senior State Department official said of the Iranians. “Obviously, we did not object.”

The official expressed hope that Iran would be helpful in ending the standoff between coalition forces and Shi’ite Muslim radical leader Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.

“Since Iran does have some influence with the [Shi’ite] community, we hope they would make clear that they are not in any way supporting violence or confrontation and that, in fact, they are supporting the authority of the central government,” he said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, while denying any specific requests to Tehran from Washington, acknowledged that recent messages had been passed.

“We have made clear to Iran, as we’ve made clear to other of Iraq’s neighbors, that they need to play a helpful role, they need to play a positive role and calm the situation,” he told reporters.

Both the State Department and the Pentagon have accused Iran of interfering in coalition efforts in Iraq , but they have refused to address specific reports, such as those about Tehran’s financing of Iraqi militants.

“We have been concerned about the role that Iran has been playing, and it’s something that we monitor very closely,” Mr. Boucher said.

The Washington Times on Tuesday quoted military officials as saying intelligence reports showed that Sheik al-Sadr was receiving funds from Iran, directly funneled by the Republican Guard, the enforcer of Iran’s hard-line Shi’ite rule. The sources also said Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group set up by Iran, was diverting money to Sheik al-Sadr.

In Tehran yesterday, Mr. Kharrazi said Iran “is making its utmost efforts to help resolve the situation in Iraq as soon as possible so that the power is given back to the Iraqi people.”

“The solution is for occupiers to leave Iraq,” he said.

Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Rome yesterday that an Iranian delegation was on its way to Baghdad to help secure the release of four Italian hostages held in Iraq since Monday. It was later reported that one of the hostages was killed.

The unidentified abductors have reportedly demanded that Italy withdraw its 3,000 soldiers and paramilitary police from Iraq. The Italian government has ruled that out.

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