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Iran/Iraq: Neighbors Mending Ties, But Several Outstanding Issues Remain

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is to travel to Iran tomorrow, making him the first Iraqi prime minister to visit the country in recent history. Officials are expected to sign key oil and power agreements during al-Ja'fari's trip. The visit by the prime minister follows a historic trip to Tehran by Iraqi Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi. During that visit, al-Dulaymi formally apologized for war crimes committed under the Saddam Hussein regime during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Ties appear to be warming between the two former enemies. But some observers say continuing hostility between Iran and the United States will present a major barrier in developing further ties between Tehran and Baghdad.

Prague, 15 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- After the fall of the Hussein regime, relations between Iran and Iraq saw only small signs of improvement. But some observers believe that the formation of the new Iraqi government has opened the door to closer ties.

Some members of Iraq's transitional government had accused Iran of being a "prime enemy” and working to destabilize Iraq. But members of the new Iraqi cabinet have said that they view Iran as a valuable neighbor.

The United States has no formal ties with Iran. But Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law in Tehran, told RFE/RL he believes recent meetings between high-level Iraqi and Iranian officials were held with the tacit approval of Washington. He says Iran and Iraq have no option but to live peacefully with each other.

“You cannot change geographical realities," Bavand said. "These two countries are condemned to live next to each other. The ties between Iran and Iraq have been always mixed with [tension], but today -- based on bitter past experiences and regional and international developments -- common sense requires them to have constructive relations, especially considering the fact that groups who are currently present in the Iraqi government have had relatively good ties with Iran.”

Several Shi'ite members of the new cabinet, including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, lived for years in exile in Iran. Just three weeks after the formation of Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government, Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi made a visit to Baghdad that was hailed by both sides as a new start in mutual relations.

Last week’s visit by Iraqi Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi was hailed on both sides as a "new chapter" in bilateral ties. He and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Shamkhani, signed a five-point agreement that includes cooperation on border security with the purpose of preventing terrorists from crossing borders. It also includes clearing minefields and investigating the cases of soldiers missing from the Iran-Iraq War.

During the trip, al-Dulaymi also apologized to Iran for the massive loss of life it suffered during the eight-year war, which was initiated by Saddam Hussein. In return, Tehran promised to provide $1 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq. But unresolved issues remain between the two countries, including compensation for war damages, which some estimates put in the billions of dollars.

Iran and Iraq ties could enjoy good relations in the future if the two countries manage to resolve outstanding issues, says Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at the U.K.'s Durham University who directs the university's Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Middle East and Central Asia.

“If the two countries manage [to demonstrate] that the reemergence of Shi'ites is not a threat -- especially to other Persian Gulf countries and also in Lebanon -- then they can make a big investment in their current relations and they can increase their influence in the Persian Gulf region. The two countries can also help each other regarding economic issues. Currently Iraq has a big need for Iran‘s industry, for example in the energy sector,“ Ehteshami said.

Ehteshami added that further developments of ties between the two countries will depend on Iran's relations with the United States. “If the U.S. has military bases and a long-term military presence in Iraq, it would naturally be an issue for Iran," he said. "Especially because Iran is pessimistic regarding the U.S. presence in Iraq, because Tehran is worried that Iraq could in the future become a base for a possible attack against Iran, or a base for influencing Iran. Tehran and Baghdad have many common [interests], but if the issues between Iran and the U.S. are not resolved soon, naturally it would prevent further rapprochement between Iran and Iraq.”

Professor Bavand in Tehran agreed, saying: “Any engagement between Iran and Iraq is limited to its compatibility with U.S. goals. They are considered positive as long as they help stabilize the Iraqi government and bring calm. But if it goes beyond this -- for example, if Iran would want to invest in Iraq, or, as it was announced, if Iran wants to help train Iraqi forces -- then such agreements would need the tacit approval of the U.S.”

Last week at a joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Iranian Defense Minister Shamkhani indicated that Iran will help train Iraqi forces. But shortly after returning to Baghdad, al-Dulaymi said Iraq does not need to rely on Iran for military training and that his country has the capacity to train its own forces.

On 13 June, the United States said that Iran should not exploit its improving ties with Iraq to interfere in the country’s affairs. Zalmay Khalilzad, who is about to take up his post as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said that Washington wants the two neighbors to enjoy good relations. But good relations, he added, do not include interference. Iran has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations of meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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