The often stormy relationship between Iran and the United States is like a loveless marriage of convenience. Despite decades of bickering, neither side can untie what each sees as an unholy knot. Both share an interest in removing the Iraqi leader and the country’s post-Saddam fortunes.
As US secretary of state Colin Powell put it this week: “I think sooner or later we will have better relations with Iran. We stay in touch with people who might be on the same side of this as us, but I don’t want to give the impression there is a great rapprochement about to take place with respect to Iran.”
Meanwhile, Iran and the United States are pressing ahead with secret contacts that are about to yield a number of understandings, including a commitment by Tehran to smooth the way still more for the US attack against Iraq. But there is one snag: Iran is holding out for UN Security Council sanction for military action and threatens to scale back its logistical assistance in the event of a lone US offensive.
The areas of agreement between Washington and Tehran are important: Indigenous Iraqi Shiites will lend a hand to the US troop advance through southern Iraq. Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, head of the opposition Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, was in Washington a month ago and pledged the support of his following. But the United States wanted Iran to sign off on the move, as well as a promise from Iran and Hakim’s group not to move in and take Baghdad in the event of the regime crumbling and Saddam’s fleeing abroad with his sons and following.
Tehran is withholding this commitment on behalf of the Shiite community that makes up nearly 40 percent of the population of the Iraqi capital.
Iran is prepared to do battle with the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters present in the northern Iraq enclave controlled by Kurdish adherents of the fundamentalist Ansar al-Islam terrorist organization. The denizens of this enclave are preparing to strike at invading US forces across Iraq and carry out acts of sabotage to delay their advance.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that Ansar fighters are in contact with al Qaeda groups in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As part of its secret cooperation with the United States, Iran is prepared to expand the logistical help it has promised Washington once the war on Iraq is underway. It confirms its undertaking to turn a blind eye to US over-flights of its airspace and to hand over US troops or air crews straying into Iran. During talks over the past two weeks, Iran has also offered logistical support, including fuel, food and medicine, to US forces in the Gulf. Under certain circumstances, Iran will allow US warships, including aircraft carriers, to enter its ports and take on supplies. In emergencies, American destroyers and other warships will be allowed into Iranian ports for whatever operational or logistical tasks may be necessary.
The Iranian navy has chalked up numerous successes of late in intercepting tankers smuggling Iraqi oil through its territorial waters and promises to keep up the good work.
Iran has also pledged to deny asylum or sanctuary to any escaping Iraqi leader – even Saddam and his family, but wants this pledge kept quiet by Washington.
Moreover, Iran is prepared to withhold logistical assistance from Iraq and deny food and medicine to Iraqi forces in flight from advancing American forces.
Secret contacts between the two countries that began in the Emirates have spread to other countries following the Swiss foreign minister’s recent visit to Tehran. The visit was described as very successful, but the Americans were not happy with what they saw as the low-level of representation by Iranian officials who they believe may not have been empowered to make decisions or promises.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington say a fierce argument is now raging, pitting the State Department against the Defense Department and the CIA. Powell is convinced an arrangement with Iran will ultimately be possible. But the other two government agencies are less than pleased at the prospect of agreements and compromises with Iran’s radical religious leadership. They hold that regime change in Tehran should be maintained as a valid military-political target – and reverted to after the war in Iraq.
The State Department counters that a discreet dialogue with Iran could be as useful as contacts on the nuclear issue with another member of the axis of evil – North Korea – which is expected to bear fruit soon. That is why the United States has not put its oar into the domestic controversy over the death sentence imposed on the liberal Iranian university lecturer Hashem Aghajari, who was accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad. Powell condemned the edict but in moderate language.
All the same, the relationship continually hits bumpy patches. Ten days ago, the United States banned an Iranian television and radio reporter from entering the country. Several days earlier, it denied entry to Iranian professor Hossein Deh-Bashi, who was due to lecture at Princeton University. The State Department stoked Iranian indignation by refusing to allow Iran’s new UN ambassador, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to stay overnight in Washington, where he had been invited to a gala dinner with members of Congress.
An Iranian water dispute with Afghanistan is also clouding US-Iran relations. Tehran believes the Americans are encouraging Afghanistan to block the flow of the Hirmand River into Iran despite existing water agreements between the two countries. Afghanistan has been suffering from drought for many years and argues that it needs the water, which used to create a small lake inside Iran.
Tehran has also voiced displeasure at continued US moves to stymie its attempts to join the World Trade Organization. Esfandyar Omid-Bakash, the chief Iranian trade representative, said this week the United States had blocked Iran’s membership in the group for the third time.