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3/28/06

Iran: Talks With U.S. Won't End Use Of 'Soft Power' In Iraq

By Bill Samii, RFE/RL, Inc.

The much-heralded Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq, which Tehran agreed to in mid-March, may result in an end to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. But even if Iran ends its use of direct means -- such as the provision of arms and money to militias -- its use of indirect means, or "soft power," to influence Iraqi affairs is unlikely to end.

The Iran-U.S. talks have not yet begun but already seem to be dead in the water. One reason for this is that the talks are not supported by all Iraqis. They were called for by the leader of one of the country's main Shi'ite parties -- Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the United Iraqi Alliance -- but another Shi'ite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has spoken out against them. Iraqi Sunnis, furthermore, oppose the talks because they resent the marginalization in their country's affairs and fear that official Iranian involvement will contribute to this process.

Indeed, "The Guardian" reported from London on March 27 that following complaints from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the talks must wait. The Iraqis are demanding that representatives from their government participate, and this cannot happen until a new Iraqi government is formed. It is more than three months since Iraq's parliamentary election took place, but there is a hang-up over supporting the continuing leadership of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, who is a Shi'ite.

Another possible reason for the talks' failure thus far is that their actual reason for being has been known for some six months, and in that time nothing has changed. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first called for such talks in October 2005, she made it clear that the objective is to discuss alleged Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Statements by U.S. officials since then make it clear that this interference has not subsided. For example, U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said in late February in Congressional testimony that "Iran seeks a Shi'a-dominated and unified Iraq but also wants the U.S. to experience continued setbacks in our efforts to promote democracy and stability. Accordingly, Iran provides guidance and training to select Iraqi Shi'a political groups and weapons and training to Shi'a militant groups to enable anti-coalition attacks." On the same day, the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples, said, "Money, weapons, and foreign fighters supporting terrorism move into Iraq, primarily through Syria and Iran." He added, "We believe Iran has provided lethal aid to Iraqi Shi'a insurgents."

Tehran, not surprisingly, rejects such accusations. Instead, it attributes violence in Iraq to occupation forces. After the late February bombings at the Golden Mosque in Samarra, for example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the occupation forces and "the Zionists deployed in Iraq" are responsible. The next week, Expediency Council chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani sermonized about the bombers' desires. "Perhaps their most important aim is to weaken the solidarity that is gradually shaping in the world of Islam, he said. "Because the Muslims feel that the global arrogance, America in particular, intends to create problems for the Muslim by promoting the Greater Middle East plan.... The main objective of the Great Middle East plan is to create a rift among the Muslims, weaken the Islamic world, and force it to surrender."

Some outside observers might be inclined to disbelieve U.S. statements and to doubt the numerous journalistic reports of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Indeed, even some Iraqis reject claims of an Iranian hand in the violence. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, for example, told CNN on January 26 that such claims are unsubstantiated. "They always accuse Iran of such things, and they told us about such things even from the first month that we've been here until now," he said. "And we were always asking for evidence, but nobody came with evidence."

It is difficult to independently verify most of the accusations, counteraccusations, and denials. However, one significant aspect of Iran's effort to influence Iraqi affairs is information operations using broadcast media, and this can be verified by anybody with satellite television reception. Two Iranian Arabic-language television stations can be viewed in Iraq terrestrially and by satellite -- Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar.

Al-Alam is an official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting channel that went on the air in March 2003. It portrays U.S.-led coalition forces and their activities in a negative light, comparing them to Israeli activities in Palestine. It is an important means by which Iranian views are conveyed to the Iraqi people. Al-Kawthar is the new name for Al-Sahar, another official Iranian station that went on the air in 1997. Al-Kawthar's news reporting is fairly neutral on Iraqi affairs, but it is as hostile to Israel as Al-Alam is, referring to Israel as "the usurping entity" and discussing "the Palestinians' usurped rights." Al-Kawthar's programming on the U.S. is negative, too, and it is supportive of Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

The Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq may eventually get under way, and there is a remote possibility that direct Iranian interference in Iraqi politics will end. However, it is very unlikely that Iran will end its effort to influence Iraqi affairs through broadcasting and "soft power." Tehran's interest in shaping developments to its west and its desire to undermine the U.S. indirectly and at a relatively low cost to itself preclude it from having a disinterested approach to what happens in Iraq.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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