Iran, Iraq Herald 'New Chapter' in Shiite-Led Alliance

Iraqi Premier Ibrahim Jafari, left, with Iran's Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref, is the first Iraqi leader to visit Iran in over a decade.
Iraqi Premier Ibrahim Jafari, left, with Iran's Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref, is the first Iraqi leader to visit Iran in over a decade. (By Vahid Salemi -- Associated Press)
By Andy Mosher and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 17, 2005

BAGHDAD, July 16 -- A quarter-century after Iraq's invasion of Iran launched the Middle East's bloodiest modern war, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari arrived in Tehran on Saturday for a three-day visit that officials on both sides said signals a new alliance that could change the religious and political balance of power in the region.

Jafari and more than 10 other Iraqi cabinet ministers are scheduled to work with their Iranian counterparts on closer security and economic cooperation, particularly on counterterrorism, control of their porous 900-mile frontier, and oil, gas and manufacturing deals. Jafari, a Shiite Muslim who spent almost a decade of exile in Iran while President Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, is the first Iraqi head of government to visit Shiite-ruled Iran in more than a dozen years.

"This is a new chapter in relations with Iraq. In the future, we will witness a sharp change and promotion in relations," said Iran's first vice president, Mohammad Reza Aref, who met with Jafari after his arrival Saturday, the Associated Press reported. Jafari, in turn, said a bond with Iran was an "inseparable part of Iraq's foreign relations."

On Sunday, Jafari is scheduled to meet Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as outgoing President Mohammad Khatami and President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iran, which President Bush dubbed one of three nations in an "axis of evil," has become Iraq's closest ally after the United States, and the countries' new relationship is a dramatic turnabout after decades of tension, highlighted by the 1980-88 war that resulted in more than a million casualties. It is a major shift even from the tentative ties established last year by the U.S.-appointed interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, which often charged that Iran was meddling in Iraq.

The two countries have much in common. Both are major oil producers, and for the first time in modern history, both are ruled by Shiite-led governments. Iran's Shiite theocracy has been in place since the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979.

But Iraq, whose population is estimated to be 60 percent Shiite, was ruled by Sunni Muslims or dominated by foreign powers until landmark elections in January gave Jafari's coalition a majority in parliament. Thus, the alliance has long-term implications for the Middle East: Jafari's is the first Shiite-led government in the Arab world, which is run by Sunnis who historically have been suspicious of the minority branch of Islam that broke away in the 7th century.

Iran contends the relationship is good for the region. "It's something no one should be worried about," Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said in an interview. "It's good for the region and not bad for anybody else, especially given past tension in the area."

"We can compensate for the coldness of past relations and become a role model for the region," Aref said after meeting with Jafari on Saturday, the Associated Press reported.

Though the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979 and accuses the Islamic republic of sponsoring terrorism and trying to develop nuclear weapons, administration officials said they are trying to stand back and let Iraq craft its own foreign policy.

"It's not the U.S. policy to advocate or promote a hostile relationship between Iraq and Iran," the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Wednesday. "They are neighbors. We want to see these two countries have good relations."

Yet the United States remains wary of Iran. U.S. intelligence officials said Iran's government poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaigns of its Shiite religious allies in Iraq before the elections in January put Jafari's coalition in power. Iran's intelligence services and its Revolutionary Guard maintain a major presence in Iraq, particularly in the Shiite-populated south, the sources said.

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