PRAGUE, May 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, in Iraq today for talks with Iraqi officials, is the first top Iranian official to arrive since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's election win in June 2005 and the visit comes just weeks after Iran upgraded its representation in Baghdad to ambassador-level on May 9.
The visit by the Iranian foreign minister to Iraq comes at a time when tensions are particularly high between Washington and Tehran, ranging from the Iranian nuclear crisis to frictions over Tehran's support for the new Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories.
Iran's Influence Felt On The Ground
But perhaps nowhere are the tensions more clearly felt on the ground than in Iraq itself. Washington has repeatedly accused Iran of working against its interests in Iraq and actively, even violently, interfering in the country's affairs.
U.S. and British officials say especially lethal roadside bombs used against their forces in parts of Iraq can be traced to manufacturers in Iran. "It is true that weapons clearly, unambiguously from Iran have been found in Iraq," U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on August 9, 2005.
Washington and London have stopped short of directly accusing the Iranian government of providing the weapons to fighters attacking coalition troops. But they say Tehran at the least bears responsibility for failing to halt the activity.
Ties With Iraqi Shi'a...
Yet if Washington is unhappy with Iran's involvement in Iraq, that unhappiness has not weakened relations between Tehran and many of the key parties in the U.S.-supported Iraqi government.
Top leaders of several of the Shi'ite religious parties that dominate the government sought refuge in Tehran during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Among those who forged political ties with Iran this way are new Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari.
Today, Iran's influence in Iran is not only political but includes extensive investment and cultural activities in Shi'ite areas of the country.
Teams of Iranian medical workers, volunteers for charity groups, and religious missionaries are active in reconstruction efforts in Baghdad and in the south.
"The Wall Street Journal" reported on February 14 that an Iranian nonprofit group, called Reconstruction of the Holy Shrines of Iraq, claims to have completed more than 300 projects from Baghdad to Al-Basrah.
At the same time, two Iranian television channels broadcast in Arabic into Iraq, promoting Iranian views.
...Opposed By Iraq's Sunnis
Iran's growing presence in Iraq and its alleged provision of funds to Shi'ite militias angers many Iraqi Sunni leaders.
"We have discovered that the key to terrorism is in Iran. This country, as I said previously, is the No. 1 enemy of Iraq," Sunni politician Hazim al-Sha'lan said on December 15, 2004, while serving as interim defense minister.
Many Sunni Arab leaders see Tehran as working to empower Iraq's Shi'a and to marginalize the Sunnis as part of a strategy to turn Iran into a regional ally once the United States leaves.
Direct U.S.-Iran Talks Possible?
In a measure of U.S. concern over Iran's activities, Washington offered in March to hold direct talks with Tehran about Iraq. But it remains uncertain whether the talks on Iraq will take place.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said on May 21 that the recent formation of the Iraqi government had cleared the way for the talks.
But, with tensions high over the Iran nuclear crisis, one top U.S. official signaled on May 24 that there are no immediate plans to hold meetings over Iraq.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said, "We will assess the situation and see when talks with the Iranians about the situation in Iraq might be useful."
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