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Growing Iranian Influence Vexes U.S.

Morning Edition: October 3, 2006

Growing Iranian Influence Vexes U.S.


Itís MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Iím Steve Inskeep.


And Iím Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

The Bush administrationís top diplomat is on a trip across the Middle East. One major focus for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is Iran. The U.S. is concerned about Iranís nuclear program and its role in Lebanon, its connection to the Palestinian situation and Iraq. As weíll hear in a moment, those concerns are shared at our next stop in Cairo.

We begin with NPRís Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN: President Bush talks about the war in Iraq as part of the struggle against terrorism. But the conflict there also has much to do with the U.S. competition with Iran. As the leading Shiite power in the Middle East, Iran has far more influence in Iraq now that the government there is led by Shiites rather than by the Sunnis who dominated the country under Saddam Hussein. Iraqi leaders have visited Tehran and the Iranian government has a growing number of aid programs in Iraq. While some of the Shiite parties and politicians are closer than others to Tehran, the Iranian government maintains relations with all of them.

Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Post Graduate School and author of a book on the Shiite revival in the Middle East says the Iranians are trying to figure out which of the Shiite groups are likely to come out on top in Baghdad once the fighting there ends.

Professor VALI NASR (Naval Postgraduate School): They do continue to support the Iraqi government. But theyíre also hedging their bets by investing in those other forces that they think will ultimately decide the fate of Iraq.

GJELTEN: Iranian-backed Shiite groups in Iraq are accounting for an increased share of the sectarian violence there, targeting Iraqi Sunnis. The Shiite militias are not yet systematically attacking U.S. troops the way Sunni insurgents are, that would be a nightmare scenario for American commanders.

Vali Nasr says the Iranians are in a position to restrain the Shiite militias or not.

Prof. NASR: The alternative is that Iranians, for reasons of their own, try to expand the scope of conflict in Iraq by trying to provoke at least some marginal groups to attack the U.S., to provoke the U.S., and in hope that they would mobilize the broadest segments of the Shiite population, to make life very difficult for U.S. troops in Iraq.

GJELTEN: This influence in Iraq gives Iran tremendous leverage should the United States decide to confront Iran over its nuclear program. In some way analysts say the United States and Iran are already in a kind of proxy war in the Middle East, challenging each other indirectly for long-term influence. The United States however, has the immediate problem of managing Iraq, which could blow at any minute.

James Denslaw(ph), analyzes Iraq and Iran for the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Mr. JAMES DENSLAW (Analyst, Royal Institute of International Affairs): The Americans are playing a short-term poker game, it seems, with the Iranians while the Iranians are playing chess. Theyíre moving their pieces into the right position and so that their allies in Baghdad are in power. I think itís in their interest to not to antagonize the Americans too much, though, of course - but instead simply wait it out, knowing that their side are the ones which should emerge stronger from this whole situation.

GJELTEN: The new strategic situation means the United States must look at the war in Iraq, not only as the central front in a global war on terror - as President Bush often says - but as part of a region-wide conflict.

Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and to Israel, argues that any U.S. dealings with Iran should not focus exclusively on its nuclear program but also on its role in Iraq where Iran could even be helpful.

Mr. EDWARD DJEREJIAN (Former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel): Its national security interest is not to see Iraq disintegrate. It would impact seriously on Iranís own internal stability in dealing with its Arab population, its Kurdish population, itís Azeri population. Therefore, the end of the day, while Iran has no problem seeing us in a troubled situation in Iraq, its ultimate goal is not to see us ultimately fail in Iraq, if that means the disintegration of Iraq.

GJELTEN: The Bush administrationís top concern with Iran so far has been its nuclear program. And that issue is likely to loom large in Secretary of State Condoleezza Riceís meetings with Arab allies this week. But Iranís connection to Iraq, Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could also come up. And what Djerejian says Rice should deal with all the problems simultaneously.

Mr. DJEREJIAN: The American strategy should step back, look at the region comprehensively as a whole, and see how all of these conflict situations are linked, and deal with them on a concomitant and parallel basis.

GJELTEN: Former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross says part of the U.S. effort to deal with Iraq could be a Middle East conference that brings together all the countries with a stake in Iraqís future, including the Sunni power, Saudi Arabia; and the big Shiite power, Iran.

Mr. DENNIS ROSS (Former Ambassador, Peace Negotiator): They may be competitors in some respects but they also have a common interest in terms of wanting to see an Iraq that is sufficiently stable that itís not pulling them all into it.

So from that standpoint, if you focus on what is a comprehensive dialogue with all of Iraqís neighbors, including the Iranians, I think youíd be on a better footing and youíll also be able to contend with what are some of the complicating forces in the region.

GJELTEN: Secretary Riceís Middle East trip this week could in fact be a step in the direction of a new comprehensive approach. Speaking to reporters aboard her plane on Sunday, Rice called particular attention to her meetings in Saudi Arabia, saying she saw the Saudi playing an important role in stabilizing Lebanon and in promoting national reconciliation in Iraq.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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