Iranians Divided over U.S. Role in Iraq

After a second meeting in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, Iran's government is sending mixed messages about what it wants the U.S. role to be. Some Iranian leaders want the U.S. to stay until Iraq is politically stable. Others want a faster exit.

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The question of whether or how the United States might get out of Iraq is the subject of debate here in the U.S., and also subject of debate in Iran. You might expect that Iran, Iraq's neighbor, would want American troops to leave. But in interviews with NPR last week, two senior Iranian officials refused to call for a U.S. withdrawal. Neither of the officials had friendly words for the United States, but their comments seem to reflect confusion in Tehran over what the U.S. should do.

NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER: Iran's government is a complex structure with multiple centers of power, making it difficult to formulate a single policy or to make decisions. Certainly, Iran's leaders in the past have often condemned U.S. presence in Iraq and called for an American withdrawal.

But in an interview last week, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was asked several times directly should the U.S. leave Iraq? His answers suggest that he did not think so at the moment. The debate currently underway in the United States will lead to a rational decision, he said, adding the whole region will welcome a rational decision.

Mr. MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Iraq): (Through translator) The security of Iraq translates into the security of the whole of the region. Everyone stands to benefit from such security, including Iran.

Insecurity inside Iraq translates into insecurity for the rest of the region, including Iran.

SHUSTER: What precisely Mottaki meant by a rational decision is hard to tell. But another senior official, who preferred to speak off the record was more explicit.

We would like the United States to formulate an exit strategy for Iraq that would include, he said, training and equipping Iraq security forces, bolstering the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and rebuilding the country.

There's not much difference between this formulation and President Bush's strategy for Iraq. And this official said the U.S. should work with Iran to achieve these goals, because he said the Americans know we have influence in Iraq. Instead, complained Foreign Minister Mottaki, the U.S. has only words of scorn for Iran's role in Iraq.

Mr. MOTTAKI: (Through translator) The Americans are constantly looking for a scapegoat when it comes to Iraq so that they can blame that party for the failure of their policies.

SHUSTER: This is a commonly held view among Iranian leaders and experts in and out of government. The U.S. accuses Iran of smuggling deadly explosives into Iraq that have been used to kill American soldiers, and of training Iraqi militants to carry out such attacks. Just as the U.S. increasingly blames Iran for much of the instability in Iraq, Iranian leaders turn the same charge back on the U.S.

In an interview just a few days ago, Ali Larijani, who is effectively Iran's national security adviser, placed the blame on the way the U.S. military has waged war In Iraq.

Mr. ALI LARIJANI (National Security Advisor, Iran): (Through translator) American soldiers are just disturbing and insulting the peoples and their wives and their families. They're kicking their people's door open in the middle of the night. They are altogether causing this problem.

SHUSTER: Larijani was born in Najaf, so I'm no stranger to Iraq, he said. Recently, he paid a visit by car without heavy security to see conditions there for himself. Larijani said the U.S. should work with Iran to bring security to the country, because in his words, only Iran among Iraq's neighbors has fully supported the government in Baghdad - the government the U.S. invasion brought to power.

Mr. LARIJANI: (Through translator) We were the only country in the region that supported the democratic process in that country. It would be interesting for you to know that all countries in the region friendly to United States need not support such process.

SHUSTER: There is no question that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, as well as other Sunni Muslim states in the Middle East have failed to welcome and embrace the Shiite-dominated Muslim government in Baghdad. Iran has supported the Iraqi Shiite political parties for years, when they were opponents of Saddam Hussein in exile, and since they have been in power in Baghdad. Larijani accused U.S.-Sunni allies of fomenting the insurgency.

Mr. LARIJANI: (Through translator) I think it's quite clear to the Americans that where the money and arms is coming from. But we challenge they're receiving the help and support. The intelligence services of the United States is aware of the matter.

SHUSTER: Three days after this interview with Larijani, The New York Times published a front-page story detailing the Bush administration's frustration with what American officials called Saudi Arabia's counter productive role in Iraq. But despite areas of apparent agreement, after two rounds of talks, the U.S. and Iran do not appear to be much closer to cooperating effectively on bringing peace to Iraq.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

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