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.
During a visit to Iraq on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick said he reminded Jafari and other Iraqi officials "that they live in a tough neighborhood." Regarding better relations with Iran, Zoellick said, "some aspects may be constructive, but be aware of what the other side wants."
U.S. officials and regional analysts said they believed Iran shared the immediate U.S. goal of stabilizing Iraq and preserving its territorial integrity. Like Iraq, Iran has its own ethnic Kurdish and Sunni Muslim religious minorities, in addition to an Arab ethnic minority, and also fears a spillover of tensions across the border, they said.
Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi, after returning from a visit to Tehran this month in which a framework for military cooperation was hammered out, made the same argument. "We are all working in harmony with the aim of building a secure and stable Iraq," he said. "We want to open the door of peace and love to neighboring countries."
The issue is Iran's long-term goals, Bush administration officials said. U.S. policy-makers, who have sought to steer Iraq toward a secular democracy, are stridently opposed to any interaction between Iran and Iraq that would encourage Iraqis to emulate the system of governance that their neighbor adopted in 1979, when it became a theocracy.
"Is it their intention by supporting certain Iraqi political parties to have 'friendlies' in power, or is it to go beyond that, to have a commonality of governments?" said a senior State Department official involved in making policy toward Iraq.
But regional experts and many U.S. and Iraqi officials point out the stark differences between the two countries that suggest an Iranian theocracy might not be suited to Iraq. Iran is populated predominantly by Shiites who are Persian, an Indo-European ethnic group, while Iraq is predominantly Arab and its Shiite majority has long been repressed. Iraq's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iranian-born Shiite, has rejected the active political role for clerics integral to the system Khomeini built in Iran.
"Good relations with regard to all neighbors means not to seek to dominate particular Iraqi institutions or Iraqi areas," Khalilzad, the new ambassador, told reporters in Washington. The key, he added, is for Iraq's neighbors "not to take advantage of difficulties inherent in any transition."
Wright reported from Washington.