Amman/Brussels, 21 March 2005: Iran's relative restraint in Iraqi affairs since the U.S.-led invasion may not last without an accommodation between Tehran and Washington.
Iran in Iraq: How Much Influence?*, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, summarises months of extensive research in both countries. The report finds that, despite wide-spread allegations of intervention, actual evidence of Iranian attempts to destabilise its neighbour is rare, and evidence of successful intervention, rarer still.
"Iran has the capacity to meddle far more -- and far worse -- in Iraq than it has done", says Karim Sadjadpour, Crisis Group's Iran Analyst. "The fact is, Iran has exercised its influence with considerable restraint thus far".
Understanding Iran's role means understanding its interests. Tehran's priority is to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat -- military, political or ideological, and whether deriving from outright failure or overwhelming success. It is thus intent on preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, avoiding all-out instability, encouraging a Shiite-dominated, friendly government, and keeping the U.S. preoccupied. This entails a complex strategy: supporting democracy to produce Shiite rule; promoting a degree of chaos of a manageable kind; and investing in diverse, often competing, Iraqi actors.
These interests and this strategy explain Iran's involvement, intelligence collection, provision of funds (and possibly weapons), and perhaps occasional backing of armed movements. They also explain why Iran has so far held back.
Iran and Iraq need to work cooperatively on their respective security concerns, in particular by strengthening border controls and ceasing any support for insurgent groups that threaten their neighbour. But continuation of Iran's relatively cautious attitude primarily depends on relations with Washington. So long as these remain unchanged, Iran is likely to view events in Iraq as part of its broader rivalry with, and fears of, the U.S.
In basing its Iraq policy on cooperation with Shiites and its Iran policy on pressure against the regime, the Bush administration is simultaneously pursuing two paths that risk proving increasingly difficult to straddle. While a comprehensive package deal addressing Tehran's and Washington's respective concerns appears impossible at this time, there are a range of steps the U.S. should take to avoid worst case scenarios. These include softening its rhetoric and heightening its participation in EU negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, going beyond its decision to lift its opposition to Iran's World Trade Organisation membership and to its obtaining aircraft spare parts.
"The best approach would combine greater U.S. carrots, for example security guarantees and a relaxation of U.S. sanctions, with EU sticks, including the already announced support for UN Security Council action in the event Iran does not verifiably renounce any military nuclear effort", says Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group's Middle East Project Director.
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