- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

Iran’s Assembly of Experts, the body of powerful Muslim clerics that chooses the country’s supreme leader, opened its 12th session Sunday calling for an Islamic republic in Iraq.

In his opening speech, the assembly’s speaker, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, urged Iraqi leaders to unite to expel foreign troops in Iraq and establish a government based on the principles of Islam similar to the one in Iran, according to reports in the Tehran Times yesterday.

The Iraqi leadership must “expel the occupiers and establish an Islamic government,” the ayatollah said.

He also said that the United States and Britain were responsible for “the ruthless massacre of the Iraqi people and must be punished by a competent court.”

The export of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist revolution, which was led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has been a goal of the mullahs in Tehran since they forced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into exile in 1979.

The United States, as a counterweight to Iran’s radical Islamic theocracy, supported the secular Ba’athist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein through the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. It broke with Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The United States still views an emerging democratic Iraq as a counterbalance to Islamic radicalism in the region.

In an interview at The Washington Times last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Iran was “providing support” to the insurgents in Iraq, but it was not clear to what extent. He also emphasized that most of the insurgency in Iraq was “self-generating” and homegrown.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Iranians are involved and are providing support. How much and how influential their support is, I can’t be sure, and it’s hard to get a good read on it,” Mr. Powell said.

“There is a practical limit to how much influence the Iranian [Shi’ites] will ever have on the Iraqi [Shi’ites],” he said.

Michael O’Hanlon, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, said yesterday’s declaration in Tehran could “backfire” in Iraq.

“Iraqis do not want to be seen as pawns of Iran,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “If Iran pushes too much, that is likely to turn Iraqis off, even if they are [Shi’ites] and share some of the same goals.”

Mr. O’Hanlon said Iraqis, who are Arab, very nationalistic, but majority Shi’ite, carry some resentment that historically Iraq was the center of Shi’ite scholarship, but that Iranians, who are Persian, have usurped that position in Muslim intellectual circles.

“We need to be vigilant, but there is a natural law here that pushes Iraq and Iran apart, the more Iran tries to meddle,” he said.

Michael Ledeen, at the American Enterprise Institute, has been a critic of Iran’s government and the goals of the mullahs for years.

“They have wanted an Islamic republic next door all along,” Mr. Ledeen said yesterday. Asked whether in trying to attain that goal, Iran was supporting the insurgency in Iraq, he answered, “yes,” but added that no one knows the extent of the support.

“They believe that if there is a successful, stable democratic government in Iraq, they are doomed. … They will go to any length to ensure their survival.”

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