Sunday, May 16, 2004

Reports from inside Iraq continue to suggest that Iran’s Islamic government is meddling in the affairs of its neighbor, according to U.S. officials and lawmakers with access to information about the instability there.

Yet as of late last month, the U.S.-led coalition held only 15 Iranian prisoners, according to the U.S. military command in Baghdad. Officials are struggling to pin down what role Iran may be playing in the chaos still roiling military forces in Iraq.

Anti-American rhetoric from Tehran increased over the weekend, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling explicitly for U.S. forces to leave Iraq. He described U.S. attacks on the militia of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr around revered Shi’ite shrines as “a rude, shameful and stupid measure.”

Another senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Gerami, was quoted by a students’ news agency on Saturday as saying that war damage to Shi’ite holy sites justified attacks on British and U.S. interests worldwide.

Senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have warned Iran not to get involved in Iraq. “We know the Iranians have been meddling, and it’s unhelpful to have neighboring countries meddling in the affairs of Iraq,” Mr. Rumsfeld said last month at a Pentagon briefing.

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Bush administration lacks hard evidence that would implicate or exonerate Iran from involvement in destabilizing Iraq.

Anecdotal but unconfirmed reports indicate Iranian arms, militia members and financial aid are crossing the border, the official said last week. Given Iran’s past connections with terrorist activity, he said, many U.S. officials are concerned.

Robert Baer, a former Iraq-based CIA officer who left the agency in 1997, said Tehran is probably delighted that Saddam Hussein was overthrown and his Sunni followers’ power diminished.

But the Iranian government is probably unnerved by the U.S. presence in Iraq and by American goals, Mr. Baer said.

“They do not want to see a secular, democratic, pro-Western government in Iraq with 12 American bases,” Mr. Baer said. “They will assume these bases are meant to interfere in Iran.”

Perhaps the most extreme views on whether Iran is meddling come from Iranian resistance leaders such as Alireza Jafarazadeh, who ran the Washington office of Iran’s exiled opposition National Council of Resistance until the State Department closed it last year, citing ties to anti-Iranian terrorists.

Based on intelligence from inside Iran, Mr. Jafarazadeh says Iran is pouring tens of millions of dollars into Iraq each month to inspire unrest, dispatching thousands of clerics to organize local insurgencies and sending resistance fighters.

Mr. Jafarazadeh, now president of Washington-based Strategic Policy Consulting, believes Iran is waiting out the U.S.-led occupation for a chance to erect an Islamic republic next door.

Some Iranian actions have been overt. At the Iranian government’s suggestion, representatives from the United States and Iran held a rare meeting last month in Iraq.

“We had a firm message for the Iranians across the board with regard to their role in Iraq, which is to be constructive, not destructive,” said Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor.

Mr. Senor said the Iranians are not needed as middlemen to negotiate with Sheik al-Sadr, whose militia is a leading source of unrest in the south.

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