LIANE HANSEN, host:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made history today — becoming the first Iranian president to officially visit Iraq. Many see the visit as a power play, an opportunity for Iran to show some influence over an old foe.
Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Professor VALI NASR (International Politics, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University): When an Iranian president goes to Iraq in this manner, when the Arab world has a very tense relationship with the Iraqi government, it underscores the fact in the eyes of Arabs as well as the United States and the West that Iran is a player, an important player in Iraq. And that it has a role to play and good relations with the same Iraqi government that the West has propped up and is continuing to support.
HANSEN: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is in Baghdad covering the Iranian president's visit, and joins us now. Dina, how important is this visit?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, symbolically it's huge. Iran is the first of Iraq's neighbors to actually recognize this government and show the president and the prime minister the kind of respect that's usually reserved for statesmen, and that's really important. Ahmadinejad is also showing up at a relatively good moment in Iraq.
The surge has really reduced the level of violence here, and Iran can take some credit for that. I mean, U.S. commanders are going back and forth on whether Tehran has actually reduced the flow of explosives into Iraq from across the border. But what is really clear is that Tehran has brokered some deals with various Shiite factions in southern Iraq to tamp down violence there.
And they also have some influences over Muqtada al-Sadr, this radical cleric who has a large following among Iraq's Shiite population here, and he commands the Mahdi Army. And Tehran is thought to have been kind of the force behind these ceasefires that he called, and that's made a really huge difference.
And one other thing that plays into this is the visit plays very well back in Iran. There are parliamentary elections there later this month, and this gives the president an opportunity to sort of burnish his foreign policy credentials. He's expected to go to Karbala and Najaf, two holy cities in southern Iraq. And those pictures played back at home in Iran are really going to play well with a certain segment of the population there.
HANSEN: Does the visit, do you think, whittle away at U.S. influence in Iraq?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, if you compare this trip with the trips President Bush has taken to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian president really wins hands-down. President Bush's trips have all been really brief and surrounded by secrecy. We usually see pictures of him after the fact. He's never actually spent the night in Iraq, where Ahmadinejad, by contrast, is arriving in very high style.
He's getting all the bells and whistles that you normally associate with a state visit. And, you know, he may announce a billion dollars in loans and financing for Iraq. Again, this is going to make him look like a statesman willing to help an ailing neighbor. And the Iranian foreign ministry has hinted at the possibility of these kinds of deals.
HANSEN: What are you hearing from the Iraqi people about the visit?
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's interesting. You know, I walked around a Baghdad neighborhood a couple of days ago and talked to the people about this. And most of them were mostly shrugging. They seemed pretty sick of these high-level visits that don't really change the facts on the ground for them.
You know, things are really tough here. The rebuilding is slow, there are no jobs, people are grumpy about the situation. And then there's the sectarian angle as well. I mean, lots of the Iraqi Sunnis will interpret this visit as just more evidence that Iran has influence or an undue influence over Iraq's largely Shiite government.
And some of that is bubble to the surface. Let me give you an example. A couple of days ago there were some people who were briefly detained for passing out these flyers around the neighborhoods that called on families not to forget the eight years of war between the two countries.
You know, a lot of Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite alike, aren't prepared to forget the war with Iran that went from 1980 to 1988. And I think that sort of cast a pall over this visit as well.
HANSEN: NPR correspondent Dina Temple-Raston in Baghdad. Dina, thank you.
TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.