Iran denies arms sent to militias

Tehran counters U.S. charges on Iraqi aid

February 13, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian officials called U.S. accusations that it is arming Shiite militias in Iraq with tank-piercing explosives "unfounded" yesterday, and insisted that Iran is committed to joining a regional effort to halt the tightening spiral of violence.

But the back-and-forth charges between Tehran and Washington highlight a growing recognition of Iran's substantial influence on its next-door neighbor and its ability, if nothing else, to prevent the U.S. from untangling the political conflicts that have plunged Iraq into mounting sectarian warfare.

Here in the capital of the Shiite republic, it is an open secret that Iran is operating a quiet network of influence in Iraq that it can use to help settle the conflict or to prevent the U.S. from reaching its goals there. Iranian officials insist that they are committed to quelling the instability they see as a threat to their security.

Indeed, Iranians say, their image of an ideal settlement in Iraq looks remarkably like America's: a strong, democratically elected government in Baghdad (that would, by dint of Iraq's Shiite majority, be a natural ally of Iran); an end to the violence; and preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity.

But with one important exception.

"The difference is Iran doesn't want to see the U.S. claim victory. The U.S. shouldn't come out of this battle victorious," said Tehran political scientist Nasser Hadian-Jazy "And Iranians perceive that the dominant part of that objective has been achieved. It is no longer plausible for the U.S. to claim victory in Iraq."

U.S. defense and intelligence officials' claims to have found Iranian-manufactured weapons in Iraq, including armor-piercing projectiles believed to have killed 170 U.S. soldiers, have placed a heightened focus on long standing U.S. claims about Iranian involvement in the war.

In Washington, a U.S. official acknowledged yesterday that the U.S. material formed a "circumstantial" case, but said military commanders in Baghdad provided solid evidence of Iranian involvement.

"So while they presented a circumstantial case, I would put to you that it was a very strong circumstantial case," said Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman. "The Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity, very clearly, based on the information that was provided over the weekend in Baghdad."

Here, the American assertions serve to spotlight a belief that America is using what Iran views as its natural influence on its neighbor as an opportunity to use Iran as a scapegoat for U.S. failures to end the conflict.

"Right now, I think the United States wants to find someone to share this loss, because they have indeed lost," said Mosayeb Naimi, a Tehran newspaper editor with long experience in the Arab world.

"The problem in Iraq is not just the Mahdi Army militia or al-Qaida or any of the other military groups. It's the Americans lack a strategy to govern Iraq."

Iranian officials went out of their way to discount the evidence of weapons without issuing a specific, direct denial.

"They condemn us for making problems in Iraq, but they don't have any documentary proof," foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hossaini told reporters.

"Lots of this evidence is fake, artificial. For example, when they wanted to start a war in Iraq, they made plenty of evidence that there were lots of weapons in Iraq, though the investigators of the International Atomic Energy Agency said they couldn't find any weapons in Iraq. Right now they're using weapons [with certain markings], but it doesn't prove where these weapons came from."

But political scientist Hadian-Jazy said it is relatively well-known that Iran has developed a substantial network of support and resources in Iraq for use as a deterrent should the U.S. threaten aggression against Iran.

"Iran has developed an important infrastructure in Iraq. Intelligence, security, organization, people, weapons, networks, resources," he said. "But these are principally for deterrence. In case anything happens. In case of a U.S. attack, these are there."

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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