US alarmed as Iran and Iraq mend fences

Middle East/ old enemies make overtures
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AMERICA'S two demons of the Middle East, Iraq and Iran, are making friends. That, at least, is how it is likely to be presented in Washington, where the approach of next year's presidential elections is producing predictably renewed hostility towards America's two favourite enemies. Both, according to the State Department, threaten the "national security" of the US. Last week, fraternal delegations from Tehran and Baghdad visited each other's capitals.

Iranian officials led by Ali Khorram, one of Iranian foreign minister Dr Ali Akbar Velayati's most senior advisers, have just returned from Baghdad after a series of "positive" meetings intended to normalise relations between two countries which fought each other - to the satisfaction of America and Israel - for eight years during which 1.5 million soldiers were slaughtered. Iraq, still under UN sanctions following the second Gulf war, and Iran, now under threat of American sanctions which have no UN mandate, therefore have good reason to make up in the face of a common enemy.

As Dr Velayati put it to the Independent on Sunday: "It would be strange if we don't have any relations with Iraq - two important Muslim countries with a long common border should have normal relations." But what lies behind this coy and still difficult new friendship is the human - and still living - cost of the 1980-88 war: the tens of thousands of PoWs held by both sides in prison camps seven years after the end of the conflict. Many have been incarcerated since Iraq's invasion of Iran 15 years ago - 15,000 Iranians alone, according to Tehran's figures.

The International Red Cross - ordered out of Tehran but still working in Baghdad - has visited many of the PoWs, but Geneva conventions don't cut much ice in the stalags of southern Iraq and eastern Iran. Many of the ex-soldiers wait a year for letters from home. Many more, in violation of the convention, were paraded before television cameras during the war and forced to denounce their own governments. Iraqi soldiers who have been seen on news reports calling for Saddam Hussein's overthrow and Iranian troops who have denounced Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic fear they will be welcomed home as something less than heroes.

But the tragedy of the PoWs has at least provided both governments with a mechanism to resume a tentative relationship, however the US may choose to interpret it. "The main purpose is the resumption of talks with Iraq over implementation of the remaining paragraphs of UN Resolution 598 [which both sides accepted at the end of their war]," Dr Velayati said. "One of these paragraphs concerns the PoWs. We don't know the exact figure but we have some documents which show there are about 15,000 Iranian PoWs still in Iraq. The Iraqis say we have many thousands of Iraqi PoWs. Both sides have denied these figures, so the matter is still in dispute. We have to sit down and talk about it. We've decided to hand over our documents and give the Iraqis maybe two or three months to consider them."

Both Iraq and Iran also wish to re-draw their mutual border which stretches from Turkey down to the centre of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, the main sea-lane for Iraqi ships which has been blocked by wrecks and mud since the start of the war in 1980. Much of the terrain is littered with mines and unexploded ordnance, while soldiers on both sides are now uncertain exactly where the frontier should run. It was Saddam Hussein's determination to capture both banks of the Shatt al-Arab - which marked the border under a 1975 Iran-Iraq agreement - that started the war. He agreed to give up all remaining occupied Iranian territory in 1990 when he was facing the threat of western air bombardment after his invasion of Kuwait.

"In his last letter, the President of Iraq told our president (Rafsanjani) that he accepted the validity of the 1975 treaty - but we still have to fulfil this, both in the river and inland," Dr Velayati said. "In the river, we have to carry out dredging operations. And we also have to delineate the border and the lands which were destroyed during the war. This needs talks and understanding. Implementaion of these remining paragraphs of UN resolution 598 is the main purpose of the negotiations." Whether this will satisfy the Americans is another matter.

In Washington there is likely to be much suspicion that Iran will buy Iraqi oil to sell on the spot market, breaching UN sanctions across the newly marked border. The US is still insisting, without publicly providing proof, that Iran wishes to possess nuclear weapons, the same ambition which Saddam was trying to bring to fruition until he lost the second Gulf War. Could the two sides embark on nuclear collaboration? In reality, which is often a long way from Washington, Iran is far too wary of its old Iraqi enemy even to consider such cooperation - Saddam would be just as likely to use nuclear weapons against Tehran as against Israel if another war should break out. But neither side is likely to have to wait long before President Clinton disinters the policy of his former security adviser (now US ambassador to Israel) Martin Indyck: "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq.

During the 1980-88 war, the United States helped to arm both sides - furnishing Iran with missiles in the hope of securing the release of American hostages in Beirut - and Washington is unlikely to forget the 100 or so Iraqi fighter-bombers that were flown to Iran after the start of the second Gulf War. Is Iran going to return them? "There are a few (Iraqi) planes which, according to UN resolutions, should not be handed over to Iraq," Dr Velayati said. "Their future rests in the hands of the UN."