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    Middle East
     Nov 29, 2005
The ties that tangle Iraq and Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar

The meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at Vienna last week on the Iran nuclear issue turned out to be a poker game. The United States dealt from a weak hand, likely knew it had a weak one, but thought that with some bravado and luck it could carry the day.

An atmosphere of suspense was created in the run-up to the meeting, a lot of dust was raised, and under the cloud cover the US gained another few months until March to put pressure on Iran.

Washington hopes that by March there may be greater clarity

about the shape of things to come in Iraq - and, in turn, how much regional clout Iran may come to wield that could have a bearing on its nuclear policy. Iraq is due to stage parliamentary elections in December.

In the face of Iranian "intransigence" over the IAEA's September 24 resolution, conceivably, Washington should have upped the ante at Vienna on November 24. But it hasn't. In September, the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors formally accused Iran of non-compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), paving the way for referral to the United Nations Security Council and possible sanctions.

The US apparently allowed itself to be persuaded to give Iran more time to ponder over a "Russian proposal" that would involve the construction of an enrichment facility in Russia in which Iran would have management and financial interest, but not a technical interest.

The Russians themselves say in some embarrassment that their "proposal" is nothing new and that it was first put across to Iran a year ago. Iranians maintain that they want to hear more about the "Russian proposal". Meanwhile, they, too, came up with a "proposal" that they were open to foreign participation in any uranium enrichment activity within Iran.

Immediately before the IAEA meeting began last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki said in Vienna, that "enrichment [of uranium] and the fuel cycle are things that the Islamic Republic of Iran considers to be its natural and legitimate right and within the framework of the NPT."

A spate of American statements has appeared alongside, claiming that Russia and China have been "enlisted" by Washington on the Iran nuclear issue. These statements create an impression that the international community now onward (comprising the US, the EU-3 - Germany, Britain and France - Russia and China) will be working in concert to get Tehran to agree to the "Russian proposal".

American statements claimed that President George W Bush raised the issue with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during his recent Far East tour - and Putin was in "a problem-solving mode" (to quote US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley).

Hadley added that the Russians were feeling "frustrated" with the Iranians. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed separately that China, too, by abstaining over the September 24 resolution, was distancing itself from Iran.

Moscow and Beijing, however, seem uncomfortable that Washington is arbitrarily hijacking their Iran policy. Their foreign ministries have since crisply restated their consistent position favoring a solution to the Iran nuclear issue within the IAEA.

There is also ambiguity whether Russia will be a participant or be an honest broker, or just a facilitator at any future meeting between the EU-3 and Iran.

What stands out is that Washington resorted to grandstanding in order to cover up the accelerating collapse of its regional policy in Iraq, which surely casts a shadow on the US capacity to force its will on the Iran nuclear issue.

All protagonists - the EU-3, Russia and Iran - seem to realize this stark reality. The danger now is that Iran may overreach. Moscow and Beijing have counseled Tehran to be flexible.

But, on the other hand, Russia does seem to be in a "problem-solving mode" over Iraq. At a meeting in Busan, South Korea, between Bush and Putin on November 18, Iraq figured in the discussions. Bush, who faces a nasty domestic crisis over the Iraq war and who might even be keen to avoid a showdown with Iran, could do with some Russian help.

According to Hadley, Bush was "anxious to find ways" to get Putin "to be supportive of what the Iraqis are doing" so that there was "progress" in Iraq. Bush and Putin discussed "a couple of ways that might be done". Hadley wouldn't publicly discuss such a sensitive topic but, essentially, the US was "trying to find ways in which Russia can contribute to the progress [in Iraq]".

It does not need a second guess to divine that Washington will be much obliged if Russia can use its traditional influence with Ba'athist elements in Iraq to settle for a reconciliation. The Iraqi elections are due in mid-December. The Arab League is working on an intra-Iraqi conference in February. The success of the conference hinges on the participation by the Ba'athist faction.

For the Americans, there is a tight calendar ahead. Opposition to the war is cascading in the US. The three-day Iraqi national reconciliation conference that ended in Cairo last Monday agreed on two major points: that there should be a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, and, second, that resistance to foreign troops was the right of all Iraqis, while terrorism remained reprehensible.

The influential daily al-Hayat reported that the participants of the Cairo conference envisaged the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraqi cities within six months (say, mid-May) and that the withdrawal would be completed over a period of two years (by end 2007).

According to al-Hayat, the American ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, concurred with this timetable, and, in Cairo, Sunni insurgent groups met with American functionaries.

Following the Cairo conference, the two Kurdish leaders, President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, headed in two directions - Tehran and Moscow. The Kurds are naturally anxious about new patterns appearing on the Iraqi political tapestry. They have maximum stakes in limiting any Ba'athist role in Iraqi politics.

Following Zebari's "working visit" to Moscow, the potentials of Russian involvement in Iraq have been clarified. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov strongly supported the forthcoming intra-Iraqi conference in February and offered Russia's help in the Arab League's efforts toward a "deepening" of intra-Iraqi dialogue so as to "narrow the base for violence".

But Lavrov emphasized that Russia expected Baghdad to honor Russian oil companies' multi-billion dollar contracts signed with Saddam Hussein's regime. Zebari's response was ambivalent. "The Iraqi government recognizes its responsibility for the contracts Russia signed during Saddam Hussein's rule," Zebari said, but "regulating Iraq's political and economic ties with Russia would be up to the next permanent Iraqi government".

So, what about the "next permanent Iraqi government"? That was what Talabani's visit to Tehran was about. Talabani, who has kept close contacts with the Iranian regime for the past few decades, was naturally given a red-carpet welcome.

Talabani's discussions brought out the following. Iran will not easily countenance an accommodation of Ba'athist elements in Iraq's power structure - something that suits Talabani, too. Second, the US attitude toward Iran (over its nuclear program) will impact on Iran's willingness to cooperate over orderly US troop withdrawal from Iraq. Third, instead of a pan-Arab identity for Iraq, Tehran visualized that Iraq "will glitter in the world of Islam in the near future" (to quote Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei). Fourth, Iran is determined to play an assertive role in shaping Iraq's political future.

Thus, on balance, Washington has sought Moscow's help in stabilizing Iraq and thereby facilitating an early American troop withdrawal. Moscow on its part is willing to move in tandem with (pro-American) Arab regimes in the region in persuading alienated Sunni groups to reconcile. And Iran has reminded all concerned about the influence it wields in the region.

As things stand, never before have the two strands - the Iraq problem and the Iran nuclear issue - become so closely intertwined.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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