By TAREK AL-ISSAWI
The Associated Press
Monday, May 29, 2006; 4:15 AM
TEHRAN, Iran -- To Iran's west lies a natural ally and perhaps its most potent weapon in the international fray over its nuclear program. While Iran and Iraq were arch enemies during the rule of Saddam Hussein, all signs point to an increasingly robust relationship now that Shiites have achieved a dominant role in the Iraqi leadership.
It's a bond that has yet to reach its potential _ in large part because the U.S.-led invasion is responsible for Iraqi Shiites being at the top of the political heap for the first time in modern history. Iraqi Shiites are not looking the gift horse in the mouth.
But Iran and Iraq share a Shiite Muslim majority and deep cultural and historic ties, and Tehran's influence over its neighbor is growing. Iran will likely try to use Iraq as a battleground if the United States punishes Tehran economically or militarily, analysts say.
Many key positions in the Iraqi government now are occupied by men who took refuge in Iran to avoid oppression by the Saddam's former Sunni Muslim-dominated Baathist regime.
Iraq's powerful militias, meanwhile, have strong ties to Iran and have deeply infiltrated Iraqi security forces. They can be expected to side with Iran if the West should attack, said Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council.
"Iran has ties with Iraq which have not been mobilized as they could have been," Ingram said. "The militias based in Iraq received much of their training from Iran and they have not taken any instructions yet."
The Mahdi Army, loyal to firebrand anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, both have significant links to Iran. The latter group is led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the turbaned pro-Iranian cleric who headed the Shiite ticket that won Iraq's national elections in January.
If Iran is attacked, "Iraqi Shiites will not take this lightly. They will not sit and watch," said Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based analyst.
Iran's reach in Iraq goes well beyond the links to the powerful armed groups. After the U.S.-led invasion three years ago, the Iranian government quickly dispatched medical, humanitarian and religious assistance, especially to the predominantly Shiite cities in southern Iraq. Iran now is waiting for its investment in Iraq to accrue interest.
"Iran has a clear strategic depth in Iraq and there is an alliance between Iran and the upcoming Iraqi powers," said Iranian political analyst Mashallah Shamsolvaezin. "Iran hasn't utilized that option yet and it's a card that will be very influential."
But Iraqi Shiites, dependent on American military power to keep their country from spiraling into chaos, are in no hurry to confront the United States over Iran.
"The Shiite political class in Iraq believes that if they generally cooperate with the U.S. and Britain, eventually they will withdraw and leave the Shiites in power," asked Juan Cole, a Middle East political analyst at the University of Michigan. "So far things have worked out wonderfully. Why rock the boat?"
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.