|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
19 - 25 October 2000
Issue No. 504
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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New possibilities for old foesBy Azadeh Moaveni
With the status quo being overturned in so many corners of the region, the recent tentative thaw in Iran-Iraq relations has not raised the eyebrows it might have six months ago. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazzi travelled to Baghdad last week, the first such visit to the Iraqi capital by a high-ranking Iranian official in a decade. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan and Iranian President Mohamed Khatami struck upon the idea last month at the OPEC summit in Caracas.
There was speculation in Tehran that the visit would not actually happen for weeks, but in an energetic burst of diplomacy that took him from Damascus to Beirut to Baghdad, Kharrazi arrived in Iraq for his three-day visit, joining a growing number of nations flouting the air embargo against Iraq.
As ground-breaking as the visit was, coming in the context of long-standing mutual antipathy, it cannot be said that it laid any groundwork for the development of relations between the countries. When Baghdad was hit by a recent mortar attack, the Iraqi regime pointed the finger at Iran. Troop build-ups along the border in past months have also signalled the mounting of tensions, rather than their easing up.
In substantive terms, Kharrazi did more to improve the images of the two countries as seeking peaceful coexistence than he did to address the outstanding issues that divide them. Kharrazi and Ramadan agreed that visits of Iranian pilgrims to Shi'ite holy sites in the south of Iraq should resume following periodic suspensions that have occurred in recent decades. The areas of the border which are still contested, the two agreed, will be renegotiated, as will the issue of prisoners of war.
But these are not new issues. Furthermore, political bad blood has not stood in the way of economic cooperation. Most notably Iran helps Iraq smuggle its oil out of the Gulf in contravention of the United Nations embargo.
In strictly diplomatic terms, though, if Tehran and Baghdad are truly embarking on the road to rehabilitate ties, then the issue that demands full resolution is the presence of the opposition Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MKO) in Iraq. As the hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan put it last week, "Although the war with Iraq ended in 1988, the Iraqi war against Iran has continued through various acts of sabotage committed by the MKO." The MKO bases in Iraq are the points from which the organisation launches operations against the Iranian regime, be they mortar attacks or assassinations of government officials.
As delicate as the issue appears, if Baghdad is truly eager to resume ties with Iran, expelling the MKO will cost it little. The opposition group, many Iranian analysts believe, is funded in part by the United States, which makes no secret of its support for the group's objectives.
However, if Saddam Hussein's regime continues to feel vulnerable to internal challenges to its stability, it probably views hosting the MKO as an effective way to deter any plans that its neighbour might have to encourage or support the Shi'ite in Iraq's southern marshes. The marshes' Shi'ite resistance to the Iraqi government is neither particularly active nor threatening, but Hussein has long viewed Iraq's Shi'ite majority as a danger to his Sunni Baath regime.
As the momentum increases towards dismantling the Iraqi sanctions regime, Iran may be encouraged to move closer to Baghdad. If any change is to come in the Iraqi government, Tehran is concerned that it work in its own interests, rather than in those of the United States.
The various currents inside Iran that contribute to the country's mercurial foreign policy may be more in harmony on the question of ties with Baghdad than they are on other issues.
For the ideologically driven currents, support seems to be due to interest in resolving tensions with a fellow Muslim neighbour. For the pragmatist strain, cooperation between Tehran and Baghdad is viewed as an important strategic pole to counter American influence in the region and strengthen Tehran's hand as it conducts its quiet opening towards the US.
But with the political state of affairs in the region thrown into disarray by the Palestinians' Al-Aqsa Intifada, it may be too early to predict how Baghdad-Tehran ties might move forward once calm is restored. What remains clear is that the two countries feel the time is opportune to revisit their relationship. Exactly what that might come to mean is as unclear as it is significant.
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