Adrian Hamilton: It won't help to demonise Iran at this stage

Of course Iran has connections and interests in Iraq. How could it be otherwise?
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The Independent Online

A week after James Baker and Lee Hamilton recommended getting Iran and Syria on board for a solution to the Iraqi disaster, both President Bush and Tony Blair are doing the exact opposite. President Bush has made it clear that he's only interested in talking to Tehran if they adopt a position totally supportive of the US. Blair has been even tougher in his rhetoric, telling Iran it must make up its mind whether to join the world or be isolated by it and holding up that President Ahmadinejad's deliberately provocative Holocaust conference as proof of his extremism.

Why such outright rejection of one of Baker's main conclusions? Partly it is that the call to bring Iran and Syria into a settlement scratches away at Bush and Blair's most sensitive spot. Unable to accept that they were wrong to go into Iraq in the first place, they are condemned to treat it as if the future of the country was a matter only for the allied forces and the Iraqi government. On this view, outsiders are seen as the threats to what would be a perfectly viable and peaceful democracy if left on its own, their only responsibility to keep out and let the Western forces and the Baghdad government get on with things.

The trouble with this argument is that it merely displays how little London and Washington understand about what is going on in the region and how far, therefore, they are from comprehending what to do next.

Without central authority, Iraq is dissolving into a myriad of different tribal, ethnic and religious loyalties, far more complex than the easy umbrella of Shiah-Sunni divide so beloved of Washington.

Of course Iran has connections and interests with these. How could it be otherwise? Half the leadership in Baghdad and elsewhere, including the Kurds, have been exiles in Iran. Most of the top Shia clerics have been educated in the major religious centres of Iran, which has over the years financed and supplied a whole succession of anti-Saddam elements.

But that does not mean that the Iranian government necessarily controls the Iraqi militia or is pursuing some devious overarching policy towards them. Iranian-Arab relations have never been that good while the power structure in Tehran is not a simple, unified set-up.

Any settlement of Iraq is going to have to involve Tehran. The precedent is there in Afghanistan where, as London and Washington will admit, Iranian co-operation has been constructive. Iran is a longstanding enemy of the Taliban and has had to house (still does) more than a million refugees from there. It wants the Kabul government to succeed. Exactly the same could be said of its view of its Western neighbour, where it willed the overthrow of Saddam and would love to see the refugees going back.

The problem is partly the way that Iran and the US have become locked into a demeaning game of point-scoring - viz the conference on the Holocaust.

The bigger problem is Iran's nuclear programme, an issue that raises far bigger problems of regional stability, security and, of course, Israel.

To read the Israeli press or the speeches of ministers is an almost surreal experience. It is as if the internecine struggles of Palestine and the growing threat of civil war didn't exist, or were of no import. The question that obsesses the Israelis is rather the threat from Iran.

There are obvious reasons for this. It is in Israel's interest to see weak and divided neighbours at war with themselves not Israel. Far more than Iran in Iraq, Israel is tempted to provoke in Gaza and southern Lebanon to keep the fires burning. Iran's development of a nuclear weaponry, however, would completely alter the balance of terror currently preserved by Israel's sole possession of nuclear weapons.

Hence Israel's vituperative, and often very personal attacks, on James Baker for suggesting such talks; hence the extraordinary fuss over Prime Minister Ehud Omert's apparent admission that Israel had nuclear weapons and hence President Bush and now Tony Blair's refusal to accept Baker's suggestion that the nuclear issue be separated out from the question of Iraq.

Perhaps they can't be. But to make the one hostage to the other, as Bush and Blair are doing, only confirms the belief of those who argue that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken on a wider agenda than the overthrow of Saddam, including the security needs of Israel. The very fuss over Olmert's nuclear faux pas points to the hypocrisy of Western attitudes to Iran.

The Iranian regime is not a nice one. But it is not an irrational one either. All this high moral disapproval and lecturing by Blair may suit Israel's purpose. They will love him when he gets there this weekend. But it won't help the poor Iraqis to a better future.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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