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[casi] Iran/Iraq: Making enemies make friends

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Assyrian News Watch
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Assyrian Chaldean Syriac


Making enemies make friends

The self-defeating ineptitude of George Bush's strategies may well push
Iran and Iraq into a dangerous alliance of expediency, writes Simon Tisdall

Thursday July 25, 2002

Amid great pomp and ceremony, Iran this week laid to rest the remains of
570 soldiers who died during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war or in the long years
of captivity that followed it.
Their remains were returned under a bilateral prisoner exchange programme,
facilitated by the Red Cross, that until relatively recently had appeared
to be almost as moribund as the deceased POWs.

To outside observers, this stepping up of the exchanges - Iraq now claims
it is no longer holding any Iranians, although this is disputed in Tehran -
looks like nothing much. But a closer look might be wise. This development
signifies a possibly much broader shift.

Pentagon war planners, White House strategists and Washington's European
allies can be forgiven for exhibiting little interest in the mechanics of
POW handovers. But placed in the context of widely-anticipated American
military action against Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, the prospect of
a thawing in relations between Iraq and Iran gains a perhaps disturbing

Since the Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri, visited Iran last January,
there have been a series of indications that the old enemies may be moving
towards some kind of limited rapprochement - or at least, greater mutual

Tensions and suspicions naturally remain. Both harbour dissident groups
opposed to the ruling regimes in either country. The ancient rivalries
between haughty Persia and the Arab population of Mesopotamia, in the
plains between the Tigris and Euphrates, die hard.

But fearing US intentions, Iraq has been working hard in recent months to
improve its ties with all it neighbours, in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia to
the south and east and with Jordan, Syria and Turkey to the west and north.

Baghdad's charm offensive has met with some success, in that Iraq has been
more or less accepted back into the Arab League fold and is enjoying an
increase in trade, commercial and transport links within the region. Kuwait
alone steadfastly rebuffs Saddam's blandishments, for very understandable

An important part of this strategy has been Iraq's ostentatious championing
of the Palestinian cause vis-a-vis Israel, currently the pre-eminent issue
in the Islamic world, through (for example) its generous, direct cash
payments to the bereaved families of Palestinian "martyrs".

In its fierce hostility to Israel, Iraq finds an enthusiastic partner in
the Shi'ite clerical establishment that controls Iran. Unlike some Arab
states, Iran's theocrats have never relinquished their hopes of destroying
the Jewish state.

But Israel apart, the uppermost, mutual concern for both countries is the
Bush administration. On the basis of the well-established axiom that my
enemy's enemy is my friend, Iraq has never had a clearer interest in
rebuilding bridges to Tehran. And this week, Iran appeared to accept that
that this logic might increasingly apply to it, too.

Speaking during a visit to Malaysia, the Iranian president, Mohammad
Khatami, issued a blunt warning to the US to keep out of Iraq. "Any
interference in the domestic affairs of Iraq would be against the interests
of the people of Iraq and the interest of the countries of the region," he
said. When it came to George Bush's concept of "regime change", Khatami
said, "no one has the right to decide for the people of Iraq. The people of
Iraq should decide for themselves."

These words must have read pleasantly in Baghdad. It is one thing for
China, for example, to urge peaceful solutions on the US when it comes to
Saddam. If and when push comes to shove, the US knows that Beijing will not
seriously try to block it and will keep out of any fight.

The same almost certainly goes for Vladimir Putin's Russia. But Iran, a
major regional power armed (according to US claims) with weapons of mass
destruction and harbouring an unresolved, post-1979 revolution grudge
against the "great satan", is a different matter entirely.

If George Bush is serious about removing Saddam (as he repeatedly vows he
is), Washington might have been expected to be doing all it can to
undermine any fence-mending between Iran and Iraq.

Bush clearly cannot bring himself to make friends with Tehran. He opposes
British and EU attempts to forge partnerships through trade and diplomacy
with Khatami and his fellow moderate reformers. But if only for obvious
military reasons, he must, surely, want to keep Iran neutral, isolated and
unengaged in any coming war in Iraq.

Strange to say, Bush and his Pentagon and National Security Council
advisers are doing the exact opposite. The president loses no opportunity
to alienate and enrage Iran. He labelled it a "rogue state" before and
after becoming president. Last January, he named Iran as a member of the
"axis of evil", deliberately lumping it together with Iraq.

He has renewed US sanctions on Iran, refused to pursue a resumption of
diplomatic relations, moved to punish third parties (such as Chinese
companies) doing business with Iran, and has placed enormous (and
unwelcome) pressure on Russia to end its nuclear energy development
assistance to Tehran.

Bush shows no gratitude for the important Iranian assistance that was
provided to the US before and during the launch of the US campaign in
Afghanistan, on Iran's eastern border, last autumn.

Instead, his administration has been at pains to emphasise Iran's alleged
links to terrorism, be it via Hizbullah in Lebanon, via arms shipments to
the Palestinians, through the affording of sanctuary to fleeing al-Qaida
gangsters, or in respect of anti-Jewish attacks in Argentina or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, expanding US military bases and facilities proliferate in the
Gulf, in Turkey and possibly Jordan, in Afghanistan and former Soviet
central Asia - indeed everywhere Iranians look.

Then, earlier this month, Bush upped the ante, appealing directly to the
Iranian people, in effect, to assert their democratic rights and overthrow
their theocratic leadership. In a White House statement, Bush accused
Iran's leadership of "persistent, destructive behaviour" and of corruption.

Officials later said the US was washing its hands of the twice-elected
Khatami and the reformists, since it no longer believed they would deliver
on their mandate, and would henceforth engage directly with the Iranian
public (and, implicitly, anti-government forces).

The hardening US posture has understandably been interpreted in Iran as a
blatant attempt to foment internal insurrection and revolt. In Malaysia,
Khatami denounced US "meddling". Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, was even more forthright, saying Iran would "never retreat" in
the teeth of US threats of war.

The former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, weighed in on Wednesday,
insisting that the US, "this crazy demon", was trying to overthrow Iran's
government. "Those who think they can turn their backs on the system, the
revolution, the martyrs and Islamic and Koranic values and hope for a
helping hand from the White House are making a serious mistake," he

Reformists in Tehran are meanwhile appalled at Bush's blundering. They see
his intervention as disastrously counter-productive and, with conservative
elements now denouncing them as "stooges" of the US, fully expect the
current crackdown on dissenters, independent newspapers, and advocates of
engagement with the west to intensify.

How delightful all this must be for Saddam Hussein! What music to the ears
of his wretched regime!

If Iran, fearing US intentions as much as Iraq and goaded beyond endurance
by myriad US provocations, enters into some sort of alliance of expediency
with Baghdad, Bush and his risibly inept, self-defeating strategists will
only have themselves to blame. Yet this is where their policy is leading.
What a way to fight a war. What a way to lose one.


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