Iranian officials Monday called U.S. accusations that Tehran is arming Shiite militias in Iraq with tank-piercing explosives "unfounded," and said that Iran was committed to joining a regional effort to halt the tightening spiral of violence.
But the back-and-forth charges between Tehran and Washington highlight a growing recognition of Iran's substantial influence on its next-door neighbor and its ability, if nothing else, to prevent the U.S. from untangling the political conflicts that have plunged Iraq into mounting sectarian warfare.
Here in the capital of the Islamic Republic, it is an open secret that Iran is operating a quiet network of influence in Iraq that it can use either to help settle the conflict or to prevent the U.S. from reaching its goals there. Iranian officials say they are committed to quelling the instability they see as a threat to their own security.
Indeed, Iranians say, their image of an ideal settlement in Iraq looks remarkably like America's: a strong, democratically elected government in Baghdad -- that would, by dint of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, be a natural ally of Tehran -- an end to the violence, and preservation of territorial integrity.
But with one important exception.
"The difference is Iran doesn't want to see the U.S. claim victory. The U.S. shouldn't come out of this battle victorious. And Iranians perceive that the dominant part of that objective has been achieved," Tehran political scientist Nasser Hadian said. "It is no longer plausible for the U.S. to claim victory in Iraq."
American defense and intelligence officials' claims to have found Iranian-manufactured weapons in Iraq, including armor-piercing projectiles believed to have killed about 170 troops from the U.S.-led coalition, have placed a heightened focus on the Bush administration's long-standing allegations of Iranian involvement in the war.
In Washington, a U.S. official acknowledged Monday that the U.S. material formed a "circumstantial" case, but said military commanders in Baghdad provided solid evidence of Iranian involvement.
"So while they presented a circumstantial case, I would put to you that it was a very strong circumstantial case," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "The Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity, very clearly, based on the information that was provided over the weekend in Baghdad."
In Australia, the Voice of America reported, U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday that there was no proof that Iran's government was involved in providing bomb-making materials to Iraqi militants.
"It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it's clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit," Pace was quoted as saying.
In Iran, the dispute serves to spotlight a belief that America is using what Tehran views as its natural influence on its neighbor as an opportunity to use Iran as a scapegoat for U.S. failures in its Iraq policy.
"Right now, I think the United States wants to find someone to share this loss. Because they have indeed lost," said Mosayeb Naimi, a Tehran newspaper editor with long experience in the Arab world.
"The problem in Iraq is not just the Mahdi army militia or Al Qaeda or any of the other military groups. It's [that] the Americans lack a strategy to govern Iraq," he said. "Today, many of the groups of Iraq are making war against each other, and it's clear that Iran is more worried about security and safety in Iraq than the United States is. Because when violence increases in Iraq, it means the violence comes to Iran also. So it's not unreasonable that Iran is increasing its [presence] there."
Iranian officials went out of their way to discount the evidence of weapons without issuing a specific, direct denial.
"They condemn us for making problems in Iraq, but they don't have any documentary proof," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hossaini told reporters.
"Lots of this evidence is fake, artificial. For example, when they wanted to start a war in Iraq, they made plenty of evidence that there were lots of weapons in Iraq, though the investigators of the International Atomic Energy Agency said they couldn't find any weapons in Iraq," he said. "Right now they're using weapons [with certain markings], but it doesn't prove where these weapons came from."
But political scientist Hadian said it was relatively well known that Tehran had developed a substantial network of support and resources in Iraq for use as a deterrent should the U.S. threaten aggression against Iran.
"Iran has developed an important infrastructure in Iraq. Intelligence, security, organization, people, weapons, networks, resources," he said. "But these are principally for deterrence. In case anything happens. In case of a U.S. attack, these are there. And in fact they would like very much for the U.S. to know about it. If the U.S. doesn't know the infrastructure is there, it's not going to play the role it's supposed to play."
At the same time, Hadian said, it is not credible to believe that Iran has engaged in large-scale weapons deliveries to the Sunni-led insurgents in Iraq who have been responsible for the bulk of U.S. casualties, when Iran's primary goal is to prevent instability and protect the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
"They're not going to support Al Qaeda and the Baathists in Iraq," he said, noting that both these groups are Sunni. "Because they're the ones who are killing the Shia. Yes, they're killing the Americans. But they're killing the Shia. By no means is it acceptable for Iran to support groups in Iraq who want to destabilize a friendly government and kill Shias." Nor is it likely that any large-scale weapons supplies are being provided, he added.
"I just cannot buy the argument that Iranians are systematically [supplying these weapons]," Hadian said. "Maybe one here and there, one Shia individual or somebody from here sent some stuff to the Shia who kills Americans or Sunnis. That's not systematic, that's not a policy, that's not a decision at the highest level of government to do that."
In Baghdad, a lawmaker close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said the Iraqi leader visited Tehran several months ago and asked Iranian officials not to allow arms and support to cross the border into the hands of militants.
Officials there, he said, are surprised that Washington is only now bringing it up. "These are not new allegations," said Sami Askari, a Shiite member of parliament close to Maliki. "I am sure that the Americans are escalating this matter with Iran during this interval because of domestic pressures in the U.S."
Askari and other government officials accuse the Bush administration of using Iraq as a battlefield to settle old scores with Iran and prevent implementation of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan U.S. panel that in December advocated diplomacy to deal with Iran's regional ambitions.
Iran has frequently said it is willing to be part of a regional effort to end the conflict in Iraq and prevent it from spilling into neighboring countries. Analysts here said Iran has valuable cards to play, without which a lasting settlement may not be possible -- namely, helping achieve a better deal for the minority Sunnis in Iraq, who dominated the government before Saddam Hussein was toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
"Iran can persuade the Kurds and Shias to accept a deal with the Sunnis which would give Sunnis, disproportionate to their population, the wealth and power. That's what Iran can do," Hadian said.
Naimi, the newspaper editor, said Iran's clerics, in conjunction with senior Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, could also order an end to sectarian violence in a manner that might stand a reasonable chance of limiting Sunni-Shiite warfare.
As for the U.S., Iranians say, it should establish a fixed timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, not necessarily immediately, and convene a regional conference that, ideally, would tackle not only Iraq but the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"One way to look at our whole nuclear issue is that the United States has not been successful in Iraq," said Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister. "One way to solve it is to change the question from Iran to another part of the world -- to arrange a new front for battle."
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and James Gerstenzang and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.