How Much "Meddling" Is Iran Actually Doing in Iraq?

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 13 (IPS) -- While the United States has repeatedly accused Iran of providing lethal weapons to Shiite militias, last week, U.S. officials once again failed to provide solid evidence for this charge, raising questions about the actual level of Iran's meddling in Iraq.

Last Wednesday, Alejandro Daniel Wolff, deputy permanent U.S. representative to the U.N., accused Tehran of funneling lethal weapons into Iraq. "During the recent operations in Basra, Sadr city, and Maysan, Iraqi troops uncovered convincing evidence that Iranian lethal aid has continued to flow into Iraq," he said.

Iran called the allegations "absurd" and a "routine practice" on the part of the U.S. "Whereas Iran has proved, time and again, its good intention to help Iraq's stabilization, development and prosperity through close cooperation with the Iraqi government in different fields -- as well as to help Iraqi people overcome their immense difficulties -- the U.S. government unwarrantedly insists on its unacceptable behavior in scapegoating others, including Iran, for its own wrong policies in Iraq," Mehdi Danesh Yazdi, Iran's ambassador to the U.N. responded in a statement.

Those mistakes include, "the continuation of the presence of foreign forces in the country and certain wring policies and practices on the part of foreign forces there," Yazdi explained.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials who enjoy a close relationship with their Shiite neighbor have ignored the U.S. accusations, believing that if anything can make Iraq secure, it is diplomacy and negotiation with regional governments.

Hamid Al-Bayati, permanent representative of Iraq to the U.N., who did not specifically comment on the U.S. representative's allegations, told IPS that there are "terrorists" who are coming across the borders and Iraq's neighbors could scrutinize these people and put more control on their borders -- expanding the circle of countries who are responsible for the current security situation in Iraq.

"There is a mechanism which is agreed between Iraq and these countries, on what these countries can do through the meeting of interior ministers of these countries, through the expanded neighboring countries conferences which took place in Kuwait and anther one that is going to take place in Jordan in fall," Al-Bayati added. "We are going to continue these negotiations through diplomatic channels."

Iraq is viewed by many as a proxy for Iran-U.S. hostilities over the past four years, and Iranian officials have called the U.S. presence in Iraq the main reason for sectarian violence. Iraqis have asked both countries not to use Iraqi soil for their proxy war.

When asked whether an improvement in Iran-U.S. relations could help boost security in Iraq, Al-Bayati told IPS that Iraq facilitated three rounds of meetings between Iran and the U.S. inside Iraq and hoped that a fourth round -- which was postponed -- would take place. "We hope that any improvement in the relationship between Iran and the U.S. will help the situation in Iraq," he added.

On the Iranian side, U.S. allegations have been questioned for lack of solid evidence. "It is noteworthy that despite these groundless allegations, to date no single credible evidence has ever been presented to substantiate them," Yazdi stated in response to the recent U.S. claims of Iran's destructive role in Iraq. "To the contrary, several high ranking Iraqi officials are on record, stressing Iran's constructive role in the country and rejecting the solid allegation."

"The United States accuses Iran because the two countries have as yet not resolved their outstanding disputes," Dariush Zahedi, a research fellow at the Institute of International Studies in at University of California at Berkeley, told IPS. "The accusation is designed to stem Iran's rising regional influence, which the U.S. itself helped to enhance by overthrowing two of the Islamic republic's most implacable enemies -- the Taliban and Saddam [Hussein] regimes."

However, the U.S. claims the activities of Iran's Islamic Republican Quds force contradicts Iran's public stated policy of supporting the Iraqi government. "In addition, during these operations, numerous Jish-al-Mahdi militia fighters and leaders of Jish-al-Mahdi-associated highly trained special groups fled to Iran where they received sanctuary," said Wolff in a recent U.N. Security Council meeting.

"As far as the U.S. is concerned, the accusation has the advantage of undermining Iran's image in the eyes of Iraqi Shiites by blaming Iran for the nefarious activities of the discredited elements in the Mahdi army," explained Zahedi about the nature of U.S. claims against Iran.

"The allegations are also designed to provide credence for America's narrative that depicts Iran as a deceitful, untrustworthy and hypocritical power which, while professing to support the central government in Baghdad, trains, funds, and arms [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki's enemies," he said.

"Iran's role in Iraq is a byproduct of U.S.-Iran relations," Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told IPS. "When U.S-Iran relations have stalled, Iran's role in Iraq would likely be unconstructive and when U.S.-Iran relations are cooperative, then Iran's role in Iraq might be cooperative. It doesn't necessarily mean that the U.S. has to pull out from Iraq."

While U.S. officials accuse Iran of destabilizing Iraq, some analysts say the fact that the sectarian violence in Iraq has diminished -- although not extinguished -- since the U.S. troops 'surge' is partially because of Iran's positive role in supporting al-Maliki's government, a fact that is ignored by the U.S.

"The security situation has improved, not simply because of the surge, but because of a host of other factors, including the successful completion of ethnic cleansing in key areas and America's success in buying off former Sunni insurgents," Zahedi told IPS.

Improved "economic conditions, the improving performance of the Iraqi military, the decision on the part of Iran to lend greater support to the Iraqi central government instead of Shiite militias, as well as blunders on the part of al-Qaeda and setbacks suffered by Moqtada al-Sadr," are also key factors according to Zahedi.

Regardless of neighboring countries' involvement, the mistrust between the Kurds and the Arabs on the one hand and the Shiites and the Sunnis on the other still runs deep in Iraq and, without the requisite political reconciliation, has the potential of unleashing strong centrifugal forces that can once again transform Iraq into a failed state.

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