Observers Debate Iran's Influence in Iraq

Iran's influence in Iraq has led some American observers to criticize the Iranian government as meddling in Iraqi affairs. Still others see Iran as a potential ally in stabilizing Iraq. Host Madeleine Brand talks with Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies department at Stanford University, about Iran's influence in Iraq.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

First, we're going to talk about Iran's influence in Iraq. This week, the New York Times reported more evidence that Iran is working with the Mahdi Army in Iraq. That is the powerful Shia militia run by Moqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army is deeply involved in the sectarian violence in Iraq.

Now Abbas Milani is going to help us understand how much influence Iran really has over what's going on in Iraq. He is the director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. And Professor Milani welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director of Iranian Studies, Stanford University): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Well, so how much support does Iran give to Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army?

Prof. MILANI: Well, about several months ago, the Iranian regime invited Mr. Moqtada al-Sadr to Iran and treated him, as one of the papers at the time, said - like the head of a state - and offered support, moral support, and political support. And from there, they sent him to Lebanon - or they arranged for his travel to Lebanon - to meet with Nasrallah.

BRAND: And Hassan Nasrallah being the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Prof. MILANI: Absolutely. And they covered the meeting with Nasrallah, as well, rather extensively in Iran.

BRAND: So it's interesting that Iran sees Moqtada al-Sadr as a head of state, as you say. He announced today, that he is pulling his Shiite block out of the government - the Iraqi government - in protest of the meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. What does that mean?

Prof. MILANI: Well, I think it probably means that the end of the Maliki government is in sight. I should say, the legal end of the Maliki government. Because, for all practical purposes, the Maliki government has not been able to hold the center in Iraq for several weeks now.

BRAND: And does that mean more power for Moqtada al-Sadr?

Prof. MILANI: I think it certainly means more power, at least in the short term, for Moqtada al-Sadr, because in times of chaos people like him - which are something between political leaders and thugs - they seem to win.

BRAND: And so for Iran, that would also seem to indicate that Iran would have a greater role to play, vis-à-vis Iraq, and trying to secure peace there.

Prof. MILANI: Well, they certainly would have a bigger role to play, but my sense is that Iran doesn't want complete chaos in Iraq. They prefer the kind of a controlled chaos that is there now. In the sense that there isn't a declared civil war and that's why they don't have to get directly involved.

So their ultimate and optimal situation is the continuation of the status quo, the controlled chaos where they can tell the world that they are the brokers that can deliver peace.

BRAND: So what is in it for them, to negotiate with the United States, if the United States does decide to negotiate with Iran over the future of Iraq?

Prof. MILANI: I think what is in it for them, is that they will have established their authority in the Middle East. And I would strongly suspect, that if they do sit across the table from the United States, their offer of help in solving things in Iraq will be predicated on the U.S. promise of stopping support for the democratic movement in Iran, of stopping the U.S. government's talk of human rights.

I think there's one point that we should add in all of this - and that's that, on the one sense, their hand is tied in all of this because the Shiite block is not a unified whole in Iraq today. The tension, and this fractured Shiite alliance, limits their option in terms of how much they can support Moqtada al-Sadr, because Moqtada al-Sadr has been killing other militia Shiites as well. He hasn't just killed Sunnis. And if chaos comes to Iraq, I think the thugs in the street will be talking, and Moqtada al-Sadr speaks for them more than anyone else does.

BRAND: Abbas Milani is the director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. And thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. MILANI: It was my pleasure, ma'am.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Tomorrow NPR's Mike Shuster will be here to talk about his upcoming trip to Iran and the stories he plans to report from the region.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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