Iraq Poised to Become Main Iranian Ally

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.

U.S. Moves to Weaken Iran
WASHINGTON The Bush administration, shunning pressure from allies for direct dialogue with Iran, is shifting toward a more confrontational stance and intensifying efforts to undercut the country’s ruling clerics.

U.S. officials have taken a series of steps to increase pressure on Iran, most recently creating new offices in the State Department and Pentagon specifically to bolster opposition to the Tehran government. In February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress for $75 million to supplement $10 million in funds to promote democracy, aid Iranian dissidents and expand the Voice of America’s Persian-language broadcasts beamed across the Persian Gulf from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

“We are more out of sync now with Iran than at any time since 1979,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t think the time is right now for a dialogue. We seem to be moving closer toward a confrontational stance, versus a compromise stance.”

Although some observers note similarities in the Iran policy to the stance on Iraq in the lead-up to the war in that nation, officials emphasize that this time around, State Department diplomats rather than Pentagon war planners are in charge. Still, the campaign illustrates the administration’s hostility toward Iran’s rulers and raises the question of whether its ultimate goal is to curb Iran’s nuclear program or change the regime.

“The administration is trying to make regime change through democratization the policy, instead of making confrontation by military means the policy,” said Trita Parsi, a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins University who advocates direct U.S. talks with Tehran.

The administration’s efforts are taking shape on the second floor of the State Department, where a new Office of Iranian Affairs has been charged with leading the push to back Iranian dissidents more aggressively, boost support to democracy broadcasters and strengthen ties with exiles.

Nearby at the Pentagon, an Iranian directorate will work with the State Department office to undercut the government in Tehran.

Rice and other officials have publicly advocated steps to pressure the Iranian government. But by setting up the new offices, staffs and programs, the administration is institutionalizing its long-held antipathy toward Iran’s government.

The new offices are modest in size: the Pentagon’s directorate began with six full-time staff members. But they can draw on expertise throughout the government, providing access to potentially hundreds of specialists.

The State Department’s new Iranian Affairs office is headed by David Denehy, a longtime democracy specialist at the International Republican Institute, who will work under Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the vice president.

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