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Iraq Poised to Become Main Iranian Ally

Still, Iran got a boost last week when Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Tehran had the right to peaceful nuclear research _ a stance that ran counter to U.S. efforts to force Iran to stop all nuclear activities amid fears it is seeking to develop atomic weapons.

Zebari's comments came during a visit by his Iranian counterpart, the second high-level visit by an Iranian delegation since Saddam was ousted in April 2003.

The United States has acknowledged Iran's influence in Iraq, publicly calling for talks between Iranian officials and Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's ambassador to Baghdad.

The Iranians, after initially warming to the possibility, have now declined, claiming the U.S. wants to expand the discussions beyond the mutual interest in Iraq to include the nuclear dispute.

The talks would be the most public bilateral exchanges between the United States and Iran since soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

With Tehran's Taliban enemy no longer ruling Afghanistan to the east and with Saddam gone in the west, Iran is seeking to assert its regional muscle and wants the international community to accept that role _ including the right to develop its nuclear program for what it says are peaceful purposes.

Iran has serious concerns over the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and also looks to the Persian Gulf with unease because of the vast American military presence there.

Iran views the Gulf as its sphere of influence and sees the American military presence as both a potential military threat and an attempt to control the region's vast oil resources.

Compounding the nuclear dispute with Iran is the U.S. memory of the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the subsequent crisis after Iranians took over the American Embassy and held hostages there for 444 days. Both issues have left the West eager to contain Iranian influence.


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© 2006 The Associated Press