- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

TEHRAN — Iranian leaders say that years of efforts to improve relations with the country’s Arab neighbors are being undermined by the hard-line policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the nation’s support for Shi’ite groups in Iraq.

Some diplomats and foreign policy analysts argue that the United States is working to hasten this process by encouraging the formation of a Sunni political coalition in Baghdad with the tacit support of the region’s conservative Arab states.

“The U.S. strategically needs to stay in Iraq, but all conditions are against it,” said Ali Khorram, an analyst who has served as Iran’s ambassador to various U.N. bodies. “For the situation to change, they’re fabricating an enemy for the Arab countries of the region — and that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Splits reportedly have been developing within the Iranian leadership since before the summer. A faction led by Ali Larijani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, supports reopening negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. Another group, led by Mr. Ahmadinejad, maintains a hard-line stance.

Mr. Ahmadinejad “is counting for everything on Iraq, on the U.S. getting stuck there,” said a close acquaintance of the president. “But he doesn’t realize that [President] Bush doesn’t care, he doesn’t have anything to lose.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad “is doing a big gamble, and it’s not a calculated one.”

Iran suffered through a destructive eight-year war after an Iraqi invasion in September 1980. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf bankrolled Saddam Hussein’s war effort with an estimated $1 billion a year because they feared an aggressive revolutionary Shi’ite republic.

Since the start of that war, Iran has worked diplomatically to reassure its Arab neighbors that it is not a threat. President Mohammed Khatami pursued that effort aggressively until Mr. Ahmadinejad replaced him last year.

“Mahmoud [Ahmadinejad] is demolishing all these efforts that Khatami made to allay the Arabs’ fears of us,” said the president’s close acquaintance.

“He believes that Iran has to be a superpower and does not like the Arab monarchies because he’s anti-shah. So he’s returning the revolution to where we started, and it’s taken 25 years to assure [the Arabs] that we’re not a threat.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad told Jordan’s King Abdullah II that improved relations with Arab states were a priority for his government, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The leaders of Sunni Arab powerhouses Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have warned against the creeping influence of political Shi’ite Islam after political gains by the minority sect in Iraq and Lebanon.

Many Iranians interpreted the war this summer between Israel and the Shi’ite Lebanese political movement Hezbollah as an indirect attempt by Israel and the United States to obstruct Tehran’s reach in the Arab Middle East by targeting its Lebanese ally.

Saudi Arabia surprised the region when it publicly condemned Hezbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers — the act that sparked the war — as an “uncalculated adventure.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah sought a war with Israel “to find a way out” from international pressure for Lebanon to disarm his group and replace its soldiers in southern Lebanon with the Lebanese army.

Jordan’s King Abdullah cautioned against a “Shi’ite axis” stretching from Tehran to Beirut, arcing across Baghdad and Damascus.

With a cease-fire holding in Lebanon, the focus has shifted to Iraq, where Iran has established a strong network of allies through generous funding to mostly Shi’ite and Kurdish groups. Several Shi’ite political groups waited out Saddam’s rule in Tehran and returned in 2003 during the U.S.-led invasion.

“The U.S. will not leave Iraq until its attrition increases and reaches Vietnam levels,” Mr. Khorram said. “Otherwise, both Republicans and Democrats will continue the policy of remaining there. U.S. politicians don’t listen to anyone except a very high casualty rate.”

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