Iran's Role in Iraq

Iran might be able to play a stabilizing role in Iraq. To find out what kind of influence Iran would have over Iraq, NPR's Mike Shuster speaks with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So that's an explanation of what Syria wants in Lebanon. Let's look into another statement you hear again and again about the Middle East. It's the suggestion that Iran could help to bring about peace in Iraq. Right now, an independent commission is looking for ways to resolve the war, and it's expected the commission may encourage the U.S. to talk with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran. British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested something similar recently.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (United Kingdom): A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself, but outside it, in the whole of the region, where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found, where the extremism flourishes.

INSKEEP: That's British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

NPR's Mike Shuster has spent much time in the last few years in both Iraq and Iran. And Mike, remind us, what gives Iran the appearance of such influence inside Iraq across the border?

MIKE SHUSTER: Iran has a great deal of real influence in Iraq for a number of fundamental reasons. One, Iran is a Shiite Muslim country run by Shiite Muslim clerics. Iraq is a majority Shiite Muslim nation and now has a government representing those people. And the leaders of Iraq are friends to the leaders of Iran. Those Shiite leaders were exiles in Tehran for many years in the 1980s and the 1990s when Saddam Hussein governed Iraq. They have strong connections to the Iranian leaders.

And they're getting a good deal of support from the Iranian leaders as they move forward as a government and try to govern Iraq.

INSKEEP: Is it provable that Iran is actually causing some of the trouble in Iraq, as is often said?

SHUSTER: It may be provable, Steve. It hasn't been proved. It's been asserted by American military officers that Iran is meddling, bringing in certain explosives and maybe aiding attacks on the United States, on the American forces there. I found the argument that they would be supporting the Sunni insurgency, which is causing most of the havoc, to be questionable, because the Sunnis are killing Shiites; they're killing people who are connected to the government in Iraq, which is close to Iran.

So that situation is quite complex. There are also different powers centers in Iran, and they may be doing different things in Iraq. There are moderate forces in Iran that want the United States to stay and help stabilize the situation in Iraq. There are more radical forces in Iran that may be meddling, and they may not be under the control fully of the government in Tehran.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to figure out then with this basic statement, this idea that Iran could help in some way to encourage peace. Let's say that Iran was friendly in a way that Americans would like. What in theory could they do in that complicated situation?

SHUSTER: Well, they certainly could prevail upon certain political figures, like Moqtada al-Sadr, in Iraq to rein in their forces. Now, whether they can actually carry that out, we've learned in recent weeks that there are split-off forces from the Mahdi Army, which are the armed forces of Moqtada al-Sadr. So it's not clear exactly what kind of control anybody has on some of those forces, let alone Iran. But the United States presumably would be looking to Iran to help rein in those forces and bring about a lessening of the violence.

INSKEEP: Are there still good reasons to say the United States should not be dealing with Iran, that Iran can be of some limited help as we've described, but that the price that Iran would charge would effectively be too great?

SHUSTER: The price that Iran is likely to charge the United States is for the United States to back off in its pressure on the nuclear activities on Iran and get some kind of a compromise wherein the United States would allow some level of uranium enrichment and allow Iran to go forward on what it says are peaceful nuclear activities. There are many analysts who say that's a price too high to pay.

So the United States, if it engages with Iran, is going to be very wary of demands like that, but at the same time the Iranians know that they're there, they're strong vis-à-vis Iraq. They hold a lot of cards, and they'll put pressure on the United States to pay that price.

INSKEEP: Okay, that's NPR's Mike Shuster. Thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Steve.

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