No need to talk to U.S. about Iraq, Iranian says

Envoy says Tehran is working to stabilize its neighbor

December 22, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Tehran's top envoy here said there is no need for contacts with the United States aimed at stabilizing Iraq, adding that Iranians are pursuing all channels to help secure its embattled neighbor.

Ambassador Hossein Kazem Qomi brushed aside recommendations of the Iraq Study Group -- led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton -- that the Bush administration speak to Tehran about the chaos in Iraq.

"We don't need a Mr. Baker-style proposal calling for Iran to talk with the United States about Iraq," Qomi said in an interview this week. "We have our own well-defined policies about Iraq. We have never waited for a Mr. Baker or someone else to offer talks."

Ties were cut in 1979

Washington and the Tehran government severed formal diplomatic ties after Iranian radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the 1979 revolution that toppled the country's pro-U.S. monarch and brought to power the world's first Shiite Muslim theocracy.

U.S. officials have accused Iran's clerical regime of destabilizing Iraq by providing arms, training and funding to Shiite militias widely considered to be leading the civil war gripping Iraq's central provinces.

"We have long made clear our concerns about Iranian activities inside Iraq," said Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The Iraq Study Group report advised the Bush administration to make diplomatic contacts with Iran in an effort to persuade it to stop supporting armed Shiite groups. The controversy surrounding the report has rekindled debate among Iraqis and in the region about Iran's role in Iraq.

Shared culture

Iranians are mostly Farsi-speaking Persians, and Iraqis are mostly Arabs. But the Shiite majorities in both countries share centuries-old religious and cultural ties.

Iraq's Sunni Muslims allege that Iranians have used Shiite militias to settle old scores with former Iraqi army officers and the United States. They accuse Iran of fomenting unrest.

Qomi, speaking in a sitting room inside Iran's ornate embassy a block from the perimeter of the U.S.-protected Green Zone, painted a radically different portrait of Iran's role.

In a rare interview with Western media, he said Iran maintains strong ties with Sunni and Shiite groups, supports the national unity government assembled by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the reconciliation talks being held by Iraq's squabbling factions.

Iran respects all of Iraq's tribes and political groups, Qomi said. "Our relations are not limited to the Iraqi Shiites," he said.

Iran provides Iraq with refined petroleum products, supplies 140 megawatts of electricity and access to its Persian Gulf ports, and is willing to arm and train Iraqi security forces, he said.

"We are also serious in sharing intelligence with Iraq in an attempt to identify and bust terrorist groups," said Qomi, a former member of Iran's conservative Revolutionary Guards who served in Iran's consulate in the western Afghan city of Herat before arriving in Iraq.

Iran is helping Iraq not because it wants to remain in the good graces of Washington, he said, but out of self-interest.

"Security in Iraq will strip foreign troops of any pretext to prolong their presence in the country," he said in the 30-minute interview, which was granted after the Los Angeles Times submitted a list of questions. "Security in Iraq will deprive terrorists of any safe haven, and we will no longer see an influx of Iraqi [refugees] to Iran."

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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