Iran grows uneasy over U.S. pullout from Iraq

November 16, 2006|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- Iran has consistently opposed the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, but new prospects of a stepped-up American withdrawal are prompting growing unease in the Islamic republic, where many fear the repercussions of a dangerously unstable neighbor.

Officially, Iran's policy remains flatly opposed to American troops in Iraq and characterizes them as a key contributor to the escalating violence. Iran's government says it wants the United States to withdraw at the earliest possible opportunity.

But the elections this month that swept a Democratic majority into the next Congress and subsequent talk of the beginning of a phased pullout, possibly within the next year, have touched off a discussion in Tehran about the anarchy that could result.

Last night, Tehran's English-language news channel featured commentary from political scientist Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh, calling for the United States to remain in Iraq until it has established a strong, stable central government capable of providing adequate security.

"The Americans can't simply withdraw from Iraq, leaving the mess as it is," Mojtahedzadeh said in a phone interview from Tehran. "Who's going to look for the safety of the Iraqis there? The Iranians can't do it. The Turks can't do it. ... This is not a question of political rivalry between Iran and the West. It has to do with the fact that the society has to have a government structure in place."

Analysts familiar with official thinking say there is growing support for views like Mojtahedzadeh's within Iran's foreign policy establishment, if not within the hard-line circles closest to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a feeling that a drawn-out timetable for withdrawal would be preferable to a quick pullout.

"They've not said it directly and openly as an official policy line, that they'd like the U.S. to stay, but I think there's a sense among the Iranians that they understand that the U.S. cannot just leave immediately," said Hadi Semati, an Iranian political analyst who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"If you're talking about the officials and the foreign policy establishment, I think they're more cognizant and aware of the possible dangers and repercussions of civil war and the collapse of what is left of Iraqi governance on Iran. The fact that if the bloodshed gets out of hand, they might at some point feel compelled to intervene to support their Shiite co-religionists against extremists and death squads and mass killings," Semati said. "At the same time, they don't want to be seen as the one that supports a U.S. occupation force. That's why they're conflicted."

An official Iranian source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Iran's position is unchanged and continues to urge a quick U.S. withdrawal.

"We oppose the Western forces continuing the occupation there. As long as they are there, we think the violence in this situation will continue, and it does not help whatsoever the stability in the region," he said.

Another official source echoed that view. "Why would the U.S. think that their rapid withdrawal would be rejected by Iran? Do they think their presence is a help? Iran thinks it is not," he said.

"Some in the U.S. argue that Iran wants the U.S. to stay because it is a good target for Iran, and will every day face new problems there. But I think their presence also is a source of instability for the region, and Iran is rather a supporter of the Iraqi government and people, and doesn't want to witness their daily pain."

Still, Mojtahedzadeh, who operates a think tank in London, said the fact that he was invited to argue against a rapid U.S. withdrawal on Iranian television suggests some level of official sanction of the view.

"I think the official position is in agreement with this," he said. "It works very subtly, in ways that are not quite obvious.

"But someone like me being on the record on Iranian radio and TV saying it's not wise to push the U.S. out of Iraq because the aggressor according to international laws has the duty of putting things back in place, this tells you everything," he said.

Iranian analysts said senior official circles will never vary from Iran's established line opposing U.S. intervention. And, they said, no one in Iran is in favor of a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. There appears to be unanimity in the government that the upper Persian Gulf is Iran's domain and that there should be no U.S. bases there.

But on the issue of the timing of a withdrawal, there are various constituencies to whom Iran must speak, said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian studies in Britain and author of Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy.

"To the Arab Middle East, Iran says, `Yes, the Americans are part of the problem, get out.' But then there are the Iranians who say, `When we say get out, we don't mean get out and leave it in a mess,'" Ansari said.

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