Iran and U.S. Starting a New Dance

Times Staff Writer

Like any good guest, the new British ambassador here brought a present when he visited the cleric who heads Iran's chief foreign policy agency. It was far more important than a keepsake, flowers or pastry.

It was a message.

According to diplomats, envoy Richard Dalton reassured Iranians that there would be no place in a postwar Iraq for the militant group Moujahedeen Khalq, which is dedicated to overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who fought an eight-year war against this nation in the 1980s, provides shelter and support for the group.

The cleric, Hassan Rowhani of the Supreme National Security Council, smiled at the news, which diplomats say also reflected the U.S. position. The Bush administration has labeled Moujahedeen Khalq a terrorist organization.

"This is a good sign," said a senior Iranian official. "Iran's concerns are being heard."

On the surface, it appears strange for a Western power to be reassuring Iran -- a member, along with Iraq and North Korea, of President Bush's "axis of evil." But Iran and the U.S., which was once branded the Great Satan here, are rediscovering an old adage: The friend of my enemy is my enemy, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

For months, Iran has discreetly accommodated U.S. plans to invade Hussein's nation, by aiding Iraqi dissidents and even helping to prevent oil smuggling by Iraq.

Both moves have hurt Hussein's regime while allowing Iran to present a constructive face to the West in hopes of broadening political ties to Europe and discouraging U.S. perceptions of the Islamic Republic as a threat.

The policy, termed "active neutrality" here, has had its difficult moments for this predominantly Shiite Muslim country. Iran, torn between fundamentalists and a restive population seeking political reform, cannot be seen as actively aiding the West, even against Iraq, a traditional enemy controlled by rival Sunni Muslims.

"After almost 25 years of chanting anti-U.S. slogans, we can't turn around and fight alongside America," said a senior Iranian official. "Even Kuwait can't announce that it's doing this. That's just the reality of the region."

The presence of an armed Iraqi opposition group inside Iran poses an added challenge for Tehran: how to back the fighters' ambitions in Iraq without running afoul of the U.S.

Iranian policymakers hope a cloak of ambiguity will enable their country to reap the political capital of accommodation to the West while keeping its Islamic credentials intact.

"When talking to Muslims, Iran is against war. But when talking to the West, it favors Iraq's disarmament and compliance with Security Council resolutions," said a senior Western diplomat in Tehran, who like many of those interviewed asked to remain anonymous.

Iran's immediate agenda, diplomats say, is to have a key role in any decisions about a postwar Iraq, to consolidate its position in the region and to deepen relations with Europe. These goals would strengthen ties to nations friendly with the U.S. that could lobby on Tehran's behalf should hawks in Washington advocate going after Iran.

"This is not proactive diplomacy. It's damage control," said an Iranian analyst.

Iran began preparing for the aftermath of war early last year, according to officials and diplomats, when Tehran concluded that a U.S. invasion of Iraq was inevitable. The clerical regime also wanted to avoid repeating mistakes involving Afghanistan.

During the Afghan conflict, the Iranian government worked with the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance militia and shared valuable intelligence that helped produce a swift American victory in late 2001, only to have Bush deliver his "axis of evil" judgment a month later.

"The fall of Saddam would be good news for the Iranian people and the people of the region," said Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi in an interview here last week. "But the region's problems need to be solved in an international framework, not by the unipolar impulse of the United States."

For more than a year, the bimonthly meetings of the Supreme National Security Council have debated American objectives in seeking to drive Hussein from power, along with Iraq's possible responses and what brand of neutrality could best promote Iran's interests.

"What we want from Iran is not confusing or demanding," said a U.S. official in Washington.

What the U.S. wants is for Iran to not complicate an already dangerous area by getting militarily involved. Iran has trained and armed a Shiite Muslim organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose military wing is seeking to deploy 5,000 guerrillas in northern Iraq. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in London last month, he carried an American request that Iran keep the fighters, known as the Badr Brigade, out of the north, according to Arab diplomats in the region.

In public and in private, Iranian officials indicate they will oblige. In the event of war, the Badr Brigade guerrillas would not be permitted to open their own front from Iran's border, the Iranians have said, and those present in northern Iraq would be pressed to stay out of the U.S. military's way.

"Iran doesn't want to provoke American sensitivities," said Abbas Maleki, who was deputy foreign minister under former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. "There's no desire to interfere."

In contrast to the campaign in Afghanistan, during which some elements of the Iranian government aided fleeing Al Qaeda members and sought to disrupt U.S.-led reconstruction efforts, there is consensus within Iran not to make mischief in Iraq.

"No one is motivated to interfere this time around," said a senior Iranian official closely allied to President Mohammad Khatami. "Everyone is united in hatred of Saddam."

With little to offer the United States besides agreeing not to cause trouble, Iran has tried to strengthen its position from the sidelines, through its special relationship with members of the Iraqi opposition who have made Iran their stamping ground.

Iran offers the only safe, generally reliable land route for the opposition into Iraq, and it has increased its long-standing ties to Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite dissidents.

"The message is 'We're important,' and the target audience is the U.S.," said an analyst in Tehran.

Since last fall, Iran has allowed the Iraqi opposition to expand its activities. For example, officials granted long-delayed permission for Ahmed Chalabi, the secular Shiite whose Iraqi National Congress is funded by the State Department, to open an office in Tehran.

In the last two months, a flood of Arab foreign ministers and Iraqi opposition leaders -- many carrying messages from the U.S. -- has created a mood of conspiracy here, turning Tehran into something akin to Casablanca during World War II.

Iran has also sought to increase its visibility. At a London gathering of Iraqi opposition groups in January, it was the only major international player at the table besides the United States. The noticeable lack of Arab influence at the talks, and over the Iraqi opposition in general, has helped Tehran's contribution shine.

"The rest of the region resents Iran's unique capability in the Iraq crisis," said Maleki.

The weight Iran carries with Iraqi dissidents would appear to be less significant in the short term if Washington initially imposed military rule in Iraq. But Tehran retains some long-term leverage as the patron of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as the SCIRI, whose participation would be important to the legitimacy of a transitional government.

Iran has also tried to exert itself regionally by proposing a summit that would include itself, four Arab states and Turkey. Nothing came of the proposal, but it was seen by diplomats as a baby step in Iran's journey from pariah state toward the status of regional power it enjoyed before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Undeterred, Iran offered another solution to the Persian Gulf crisis Tuesday, calling on the Iraqi opposition to reconcile with Hussein and for the U.N. to sponsor elections in Iraq.

Along with playing host to the opposition, Iran has kept up direct talks with Baghdad, ostensibly to try to convince Hussein to abide by U.N. resolutions and avoid war.

In a message to Tehran sent with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri last month, Hussein offered Iran a broad, generous package of trade and the exchange of prisoners from the 1980-88 war and asked for assurances of Iranian neutrality, according to diplomats. But in his meeting with Sabri, Foreign Minister Kharrazi suggested that Iraq should comply with Security Council resolutions.

Iran's talks with Baghdad are hotly debated within the government here. Many pro-reform members of parliament believe Iran has little to gain by ties to a regime whose expiration date appears to be approaching, and they tried to impeach Kharrazi for allowing his Iraqi counterpart to visit Tehran.

Some officials believe Iran should let the SCIRI act freely with Tehran's blessing.

"If it was up to me, I'd fling the border open and let them through," said one senior official.

However, other allies of Khatami, who urged Iran to cooperate openly with the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan, believe the "axis of evil" designation obliges Iran to be more cautious.

"Being truly neutral is in Iran's interest," said Hadi Semati, a political science professor and foreign policy advisor to the government. "Being perceived as a participant in this war will leave a lasting scar in the Arab world."

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