Iraq, Iran Agree on Need to Police Border

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concludes a two-day visit to neighboring Iran. He returns home with a pledge from Iran's leaders to crack down on militants who've been crossing into Iraq from Iran. Relations between Iran and Iraq, who fought an eight-year war in the 1980s, have steadily improved since Saddam Hussein was driven from power. Steve Inskeep talks to Time magazine reporter Azadeh Moaveni.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Here are two updates on the influence of Iran and important points in the Middle East. Iran is seen as holding some of the keys to war and peace in Iraq and Lebanon.

MONTAGNE: The Lebanese militia Hezbollah has support from Iran, and that's not the group's only source of strength. We'll hear more on that in a moment. We begin with Iraq, whose prime minister has just paid a visit to Iran asking for help. Nouri al-Maliki goes home with a promise to crack down on militants who've been crossing from Iran to Iraq.

INSKEEP: To learn more about this visit, we turn to Azadeh Moaveni. She is a reporter for Time Magazine in Tehran. She's on the line from there. Welcome to the program.

Ms. AZADEH MOAVENI (Reporter, Time Magazine): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Is Iran's leadership actually committed to stopping the flow of militants into Iraq?

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, Iran certainly doesn't want Iraq to break out into civil war, and President Ahmadinejad pledged in his talks with Prime Minister Maliki to clamp down on the violence. He said that Iraq's security is Iran's security. And in the past, Iran has made significant efforts to try and stop the flow of militants that cross its long border with Iraq. And right now, the mood in Tehran among government officials is certainly in line with keeping Iraq at its current level of controlled chaos, as it's sometimes called. So I think that certainly on the Iranian side there is a real willingness to extend even more security cooperation than we've seen over the last couple of years.

INSKEEP: You talk about keeping Iraq at its current level of controlled chaos. Does Iran have an interest in some chaos in Iraq?

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, Iran - I think we have to admit this - certainly does benefit from Iraq being, to a degree, in a controlled manner, chaotic. Because as long as the U.S. is bogged down there, occupied with dealing with this Iraqi insurgency, the perception here in Tehran is that it can't turn its sights to Tehran and that it will have to postpone any kind of potential confrontation with Iran until Iraq is somewhat stable.

INSKEEP: American officials have periodically made accusations about Iranian arms and Iranian individuals crossing the border into Iraq. From where you are, who actually is crossing the border and what are they doing?

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, on the government-to-government level, Iran offers the kind of help that would not be fueling any kind of insurgency. There is a lot of help in terms of electricity and gasoline. Pilgrims cross the border. That's at the government-to-government level. There is support for Shiite militias and Shiite politicians, but this is not at the government-to-government level. And it certainly sometimes comes at critical moments surrounding talk about elections and Iran funneling financial assistance to Shiite political groups, helping them win those elections - training for militias, potentially, that have had close relationships with Iran in the past.

But these are all, again, kinds of aid that stop at Shiite militant groups and Shiite humanitarian groups and don't really extend into any kind of Sunni networks that seem to be at the heart of the insurgency.

INSKEEP: So is Iran really affecting the insurgency then?

MS. MOAVENI: I would say that Iran as a fueler of the Sunni insurgency is just not accurate. I think that would be scapegoating. Iran's border is porous. I don't think that there is even a private tolerance among various defense groups in Iran - groups like the Revolutionary Guard - to allow sending militants across the border. So I think when it comes to the Sunni question, no, Iran is really not at the heart of this.

INSKEEP: Does Iraq's government right now see Iran the same way that the United States government does?

Ms. MOAVENI: Iraq's government is in a tight spot because it wants to - needs to - have stable and healthy ties with Iran. Of course, that's something that's difficult to balance because Iraq's other main ally - the United States -doesn't appreciate this kind of close relationship, refuses to engage with Iran directly, and sees the extent of Iran's influence inside Iraq as a destabilizing threat. And so both sides, both when it comes to the U.S. and Iran, tried to sit down and talk about Iraq earlier this year. Those talks fell apart. And so certainly for the Iraqi government, it's a very delicate balancing act trying to navigate these two top allies that don't necessarily see their interests inside the country always as converging.

INSKEEP: Azadeh Moaveni of Time Magazine is in Tehran. Thanks very much.

Ms. MOAVENI: Thank you.

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