Weighing Iran's Influence on Iraq

What role might Iran may play in bringing peace to Iraq? Ali Ansari, author of Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East, talks with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Democrats may try to extend the Gates hearings until Wednesday so they can ask Mr. Gates about the report of the Iraq Study Group, which will be released then. The bipartisan panel is expected to recommend, among other things, that the United States reach out to Iran and Syria for their help in trying to tamp down violence and division in Iraq, a move that the U.S. government has opposed.

Ali Ansari is author of "Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East." He's a professor in the modern history department at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and he joins us this morning. Thanks very much for being with us, professor.

Professor ALI ANSARI (University of St. Andrews): Very good to be with you.

SIMON: And if the U.S. were to make an overture, how would you predict that Iran might respond?

Prof. ANSARI: Well, it all depends on the nature of the overture, and at the moment I don't see a great amount of incentive for the Iranians to responds very constructively. Because one of the main problems, certainly from this side of the Atlantic, is that the approach that has been made to Iran has not been very attractive. I mean, it's basically asking the Iranians to join the coalition in the quagmire that is Iraq. And you can tell in Tehran they're not going to find that a very attractive option.

SIMON: How much leverage does Iran have in Iraq? A lot of Iraqis have very painful memories of that long war.

Prof. ANSARI: That's certainly true. I mean, there are those who exaggerate for effect on both sides of the equation. It's certainly true that there are very bitter memories, but at the same time many of the Iraqis currently in government, if not in power, spent a long time in exile in Iran and they have very close ties with the Iranian establishment on a number of different levels.

SIMON: And how do you respond to the concerns of people that say inviting Iran into Iraq is - and forgive the old barnyard euphemism - but it's like inviting the fox into the henhouse.

Prof. ANSARI: Well, if the United States decides to make an approach and begin an engagement with Iran, it has to be very clear about what it wants. It has to know its policy towards Iran. At the moment, I think the concern of people on many sides is that the United States is reacting too much.

This is far too much of a reactive policy, a consequence of failures in other areas, and they're trying to find ways out and trying to find ways to progress and to move forward. But you've got to be very careful with Iran, that the way you approach Iran has been well through out, well constructed, you know what you want, and that it's coherent.

SIMON: What if the United States were to tie some kind overture to letting enrichment of uranium proceed under careful supervision.

Prof. ANSARI: Well, I think the issue of the nuclear enrichment facilities and nuclear program is one that is a red line, which frankly - certainly for the Europeans and the Americans, and of course the Israelis - is going to be a very difficult one to cross.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that the Iranian negotiating position will be that, well, you know, we're happy to help you as long as you lay off on these various aspects of the nuclear program. And that's something that I think is going to be very difficult for the United States actually to concede to and I think will probably block any meaningful progress, to be honest.

SIMON: Does Iran have any enduring designs on Iraq?

Prof. ANSARI: Iran really looks on Iraq as it's near abroad, in the same way as Russia looks on the former sort of Soviet state as its near abroad. It sees Iraq essentially as its own backyard. Its argument is basically that the Americans and the British will eventually leave. When they leave, Iran will have to pick up the pieces in some form or another, but it will want to maintain an influence in the region.

And their main objective has been related - to me it goes back to the issue of the war. I mean, their red line, as they've said, is that they will do everything they can to prevent a military threat emerging from Iraq again. And that means that essentially they will want a country that is militarily weak.

SIMON: Ali Ansari, professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. ANSARI: Thank you.

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