- The Washington Times - Friday, July 15, 2005

The Iraqi government, frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction, is increasingly turning to Iran for investment, refined oil products, electricity and other needs.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is to lead a top-level delegation to Iran today to boost security and economic relations between the two Shi’ite-majority nations.

Six ministers, including Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, are to accompany Mr. al-Jaafari on his four-day visit to Tehran, said the prime minister’s spokesman, Laith Kubba.

“Iraq would like to build trust with Iran against the background of hostility and mistrust that cuts deep,” said Mr. Kubba, from Baghdad.

Although he welcomes increased economic and security cooperation, the spokesman said, Mr. al-Jaafari also would make it clear to Tehran that Baghdad would not allow any political interference.

“The prime minister is going to deliver this message very clearly. It is tempting for Iran to meddle with Iraq’s affairs; it might be tempting for the Iranians to overstep the line. The prime minister wants to make sure this will not be the case,” Mr. Kubba said.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said Wednesday that Washington wanted “to see these two countries have good relations with each other” but without “interference in Iraqi affairs.”

Many members of Iraq’s new government spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and maintain strong links with their hard-line Islamic neighbor — a cause of concern for Iraq’s secularists, Sunnis and Christian religious minorities, and the United States.

“I can well imagine that they have to be very, very careful with these steps,” said Phebe Marr, a senior fellow and Iraq expert at the United States Institute of Peace.

Improving ties with Iran, “while it might solve some problems, could open some wounds,” she cautioned.

Iraq hopes to coordinate efforts to stop widespread smuggling, organized crime and drug routes across its long and porous border with Iran, while increasing desperately needed imports of refined oil, electricity, water and transportation links.

America’s hugely expensive reconstruction efforts of the past two years have failed to deliver significant improvements in those essential services, mainly because of the raging insurgency in Iraq.

“You would have a riot in Basra now if it were not for all the oil products, like [gasoline] and cooking gas and kerosene coming from Iran,” said Entifad Qanbar, spokesman for Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, part of the ruling political alliance.

Basra sits near the southeastern border with Iran. Cheap goods flow into the south from Iran, while Turkish products come in through Iraq’s northern border.

Mr. al-Jaafari’s trip follows on Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi’s recent successful visit to Iran, when the two governments signed a $1 billion memorandum of understanding, said President Jalal Talabani’s chief of staff, Kamaran Karadaghi.

Details of the agreement are still being worked out, he said, but a portion of the money is dedicated to Iraq’s defense needs, which would beef up military cooperation between the neighbors.

One member of the leading Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq party said it was unlikely that Iran would provide any military training.

“The Iranians are the winners in the Iraqi game; they got rid of Saddam Hussein, [and] most of their friends are in power,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But, he added, “I believe we are still in need of coalition troops.”

Iraq and Iran fought a war from 1980 through 1988.

Mr. Qanbar said Iraq wanted good relations with all its neighbors, including Iran. “There is no intention whatsoever that improving relations with Iran will influence in any way relations with the United States,” he said.

Nevertheless, it is likely the United States is closely watching the Iraqi government’s relationship with Iran, listed by President Bush as part of the “axis of evil” along with prewar Iraq and North Korea.

“I’ll bet you there are some Americans concerned about this, and I hope they are keeping an eye on it,” Ms. Marr said.

Paul Hughes, a retired U.S. colonel who served in Iraq and is now with the United States Institute of Peace, said pragmatism would inevitably trump Iraqi concerns over ideology.

“You got to dance with the devil over there,” he said.

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