Iraq and Iran Discuss Closer Relationship

The leaders of Iran and Iraq have been meeting for the past two days to discuss security and stability in the Persian Gulf region. Violence between the two countries in the 1980s claimed 1 million lives. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, lived in exile in Iran for years and speaks fluent Farsi. Robert Siegel talks with Ray Takeyh, senior fellow on Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The prime minister of Iraq's transitional government, Ibrahim Al-Jafari, was in Tehran Sunday and today. It was the first visit of an Iraqi leader to the Iranian capital since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The visit has produced Iranian pledges of closer security cooperation. Jafari is a Shiite Muslim leader, and many Iraqi Shiites have close ties to Iran. For what to make of this relationship and its possibilities, we turn now to Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.

What do you see in symbol and substance in this moment of Iranian-Iraqi detente.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations): It's actually quite a significant trip. It's quite a significant emerging relationship. For a long time, we have perceived Iran and Iraq to be antagonistic to one another given their competition and conflict that have characterized that relationship for a long time. And Jafari's trip seemed to characterize a new dawn in Iran-Iraq relations, where the two parties are going to be cooperative and essentially work together on the entire range of issues from regional security issues to greater degree of trade, greater degree of economic cooperation and significant degree of intimacy between the two powers.

SIEGEL: Put us, if you can, in the mind-set of Ibrahim Al-Jafari, the Iraqi leader. When he looks east, what does he see in Iran? Does he see a country that's threatening, that's friendly, that's a cultural center for him? How would he see his big neighbor?

Mr. TAKEYH: As someone who has lived in Iran for a long time and has had very close ties to Iranian leadership during his long career as an oppositionist figure to Saddam's regime, when he looks to Iran, he sees individuals that he's known for a long time, individuals that he has worked with for a long time. And far from a threat, actually he sees an opportunity. So that essentially changes the picture of Gulf security as we have known it for the past 40, 50 years in which the Persian Gulf was always characterized by tension between Iran and Iraq, tensions obviously that led to outbreak of war for eight years. But now it's really a new era that we're entering, where these two powers are going to be much closer together.

SIEGEL: Do you think Washington is ready for this new era? Iran remains regarded as a member of an axis of evil as far as the Bush administration is concerned, posing threats with its nuclear program, led now soon by a president-elect who is considered a hard-liner. What is the US going to make of all this?

Mr. TAKEYH: I'm not quite sure if United States concerns are all that relevant, and they're likely to be less relevant as time goes on. Iraq is beginning to have its new state, its new sovereign prerogatives. And just because Iran and United States are antagonistic to one another, the new Iraqi regime is unlikely to share that American antagonism. It's going to be in a difficult position for a period of time when Iraq will try to balance its relationship with the United States with its emerging ties with Iran. It's going to be a difficult balancing act. But I suspect Iraqi regime will do so because it has an interest in having better relationship with its powerful neighbor, better security relationship, better economic relationship, better cultural and social relationship. And it would be wise for the United States not to obstruct that natural relationship that is emerging because it is unlikely to succeed in such obstructionist efforts.

SIEGEL: What do you think the Saudis make of a friendly summit between what are now the two majority Shiite-Muslim states in the Gulf?

Mr. TAKEYH: Well, that's a very interesting aspect of the sort of strategic realignment that the Persian Gulf is undergoing. This actually turns the Gulf security architecture on its head. It's no longer Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperating to contain Saddam's Iraq. It's no longer Saddam's Iraq and the House of Saud cooperating to stem the tide of Iran's Islamic revolution. It's now a Shia-dominated government in Iraq and a Shia-dominated government in Iran having closer collaborative relationships. Whether that militates against Saudi Arabia or not depends to be seen. But one thing I will say that the two states have in common, Iran and Iraq, is they are both threatened by Sunni militancy. And Sunni militancy, of course--Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of Sunni militancy.

SIEGEL: Is Iran threatened by Sunni militancy?

Mr. TAKEYH: Oh, sure. Iran was very much concerned about the relationship that Saudi Arabia had with Taliban, and Iran almost waged war against it, and it was very much concerned about that sort of a security challenge that Sunni radical regimes and Sunni radical movements constituted in the Middle East, certainly not to the same degree that Iraq is experiencing. But also one thing that has to be recognized is that a majority of the suicide bombers in Iraq today are actually coming from Saudi Arabia, and that essentially further aggravates relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the future should Iraq remain a Shia-dominated regime, as I suspect it will.

SIEGEL: Well, Ray Takeyh, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. TAKEYH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Ray Takeyh, who is a senior fellow on Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.

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