Go 0ato OriginalBy Geneive Abdo
Friday 25 April 2003
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared yesterday that 0athe United States would not tolerate an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq.
''If you're suggesting how we would feel about an Iranian-type government 0awith a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't 0agoing to happen,'' Rumsfeld said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Bush administration officials have accused the Shi'ite clergy who rule Iran 0aof inspiring their brethren in neighboring Iraq to challenge the democratic and 0asecular forces that the United States hopes will lead a postwar government. Huge 0aShi'ite religious gatherings in southern Iraq this week often had political 0aovertones, including calls to replace the toppled government of Saddam Hussein 0awith an Islamic state.
Some US officials who specialize in Iranian relations say the Iranian clergy 0amaintain only minimal religious influence over Shi'ites in Iraq, who constitute 0amore than 60 percent of the population. In their view, Iran is not out to 0aundermine the democratic and secular forces who are vying for power with the 0aShi'ite majority.
These officials said the US warnings to Iran reflect the views of 0aconservatives within the Bush administration who believe Iran is responsible for 0athe rising tide of anti-American sentiment among Iraq's Shi'ites.
''There is confusion in the Bush administration that the Shi'ites in Iraq are 0alike the Shi'ites in Iran. But they are not the same, and they view religion and 0apolitics differently,'' said one US official, speaking on condition of 0aanonymity. ''And then there are those in the administration who want to target 0aIran and believe the US made a wrong turn in recent weeks when it lashed out at 0aSyria.''
The accusations against Iran come at a time when key Iranian leaders have 0asuggested that the two countries mend relations, after 24 years of 0ahostility.
''The Bush administration's charges are creating the real possibility of a 0aserious US-Iran confrontation,'' said Gary Sick, director of the Middle East 0aInstitute at Columbia University.
Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran, suggested recently that a 0areferendum be held for Iranians to decide if they want to reconcile with the 0aUnited States. A majority of Iranians favor reconciliation, according to 0anumerous opinion polls.
A US-Iran specialist in Iran said the Bush administration's charges have 0aruined a rare opening from Tehran.
''There is a chance here which could be spoiled by Iraq and the Bush 0aadministration's scapegoat scenario,'' said the specialist, who declined to be 0aidentified. ''People here definitely want to do something to improve relations, 0abut they don't know how.''
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Wednesday that the United States 0awas seeking a democratic Iraq while Iranian agents were trying to promote a 0aradical Islam among Iraq's Shi'ites in order to create a hard-line Islamic 0astate.
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi of Iran rejected the charges yesterday, 0asaying Iran did not seek to enhance the power of Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq.
''Naturally, the majority of Iraq is Shi'ite, but we are not insisting on [a 0arole for the Shi'ites],'' Kharrazi said. ''For us, Shi'ites, Sunnis, Turks, and 0aArabs are the same, and everybody should play their role in a democratic 0aIraq.''
US officials have said Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an elite force led by 0aIran's supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have infiltrated 0aIraq.
A limited number of Revolutionary Guards are accompanying the Badr Brigade, a 0amilitary force of about 10,000 men under the command of Ayatollah Mohammad Bakir 0aal-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an 0aopposition group that was based in Iran for at least a decade. The brigade, 0aalong with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, now have a key presence in the towns of 0aKut and Baquba, near the Iranian border, according to US intelligence 0aofficials.
But despite this military presence, Hakim and his group are not working to 0ainstall a radical Islamic government in Iraq, said the specialist in Tehran. ''The Shi'ite on the street in Karbala who chants anti-American slogans and 0acalls for an Islamic state is not operating by remote control from Iran.
''What I saw from Hakim when he was in Iran was that he wants to unify the 0aIraqi opposition and he opposes the idea of a supreme clerical rule,'' said the 0aspecialist, referring to Iran's style of government, which gives the supreme 0aleader final authority over all state matters, including the military apparatus 0aand the judiciary.
Hakim called on Shi'ites last week to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of 0aKarbala to ''oppose the US-led interim administration and defend Iraq's 0aindependence.'' More than 1 million Shi'ites converged on Karbala on Tuesday, 0athe first time in decades they were free to commemorate the death of Imam 0aHussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed. Saddam Hussein -- a Sunni Muslim, 0alike Iraqi leaders before him -- had banned the ritual.
Aggravating relations between the United States and Iran is the view of 0aIran's ruling establishment that it has a legitimate right to some political 0ainfluence in Iraq's postwar government. Iran borders Iraq and fought an 0aeight-year war against Hussein's regime, which ended in stalemate in 1988.
But many conservatives view Iran as a continuing threat to US national 0asecurity.
''There has been no progress in Iran on the issues the United States cares 0aabout,'' said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute for Public 0aPolicy Research, a think tank in Washington affiliated with the Bush 0aadministration. ''The Iranians have weapons of mass destruction and they support 0aterrorist groups, and it's only getting worse.''
Iranian leaders believe the recent accusations are designed to create a 0apretext for the Bush administration to demand that Iran change its political 0asystem and moderate its anti-Western policies. President Bush, on numerous 0aoccasions, has called on the Iranian people to work to change their government, 0aa message interpreted as a call for Iranians to revolt against the clerical 0aregime.
''The people here feel they will be a scapegoat if things go badly for the US 0ain Iraq and that the Americans are looking for an excuse to make changes in 0aIran,'' said the specialist in Tehran.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is 0adistributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in 0areceiving the included information for research and educational 0apurposes.)