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Saddam for his part employed the MKO as his own private army, an adjunct to the Iraqi military, to counter Iraqi opposition moves from inside Iran and to aggravate Iran by carrying out blind terrorist acts in the streets of Iran. Although the number of MKO members never reached more than a few thousand (compared with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Iran) nevertheless they were used to their full potential
By Massoud Khodabandeh/ Centre de recherche sur la terrorisme in Paris In his article, Khodabandeh discussed Iran and US situation in Iraq and their relations, expectations and their influence in the country and forthcoming elections. He also refers to the efforts of parts of Pentagon and Israeli government to disrupt neutralization of relations between these two countries and says: “…But these efforts have been hampered, if not to say completely negated, by other, unbending elements on both sides of the divide which have acted vigorously to undermine and block the achievement of such a goal. On the Iranian side sits a bizarre mix of hardliners in the regime itself and a vociferous but largely defunct exiled opposition group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which, seeing no hope of success through its own efforts, courts hawkish proponents of US military intervention in Iran. More importantly, on the US side we have seen the generic influence of pro-Israeli groups and personalities which regard Iran as the major threat to Israel's best interests, and therefore an enemy not to be negotiated with. For these, Iran does genuinely reside in an "axis of evil". In another part of his article, he points to MKO as mercenaries of Saddam against Iran and writes: “…Saddam for his part employed the MKO as his own private army, an adjunct to the Iraqi military, to counter Iraqi opposition moves from inside Iran and to aggravate Iran by carrying out blind terrorist acts in the streets of Iran. Although the number of MKO members never reached more than a few thousand (compared with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Iran) nevertheless they were used to their full potential. The fall of Saddam in this respect can be considered a victory for which the Iranians as much as Iraqi dissidents can be expected to show gratitude….” To see the full article, please click the link below: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/GA19Ak01.html Grievances between the US and Iran date back to the 1979 revolution's removal of the Central Intelligence Agency-backed Shah's regime, or, more properly, to the US Embassy hostage crisis which followed that landmark event. Since then, relations between the two have staggered back and forth on points of trust, but they have not quite found enough mutuality to move forward. Efforts have been made on both sides to engineer some kind of rapprochement. Iranian reformists and nationalists - both in the Iranian government as well as among some opposition groups outside Iran - and some advocates for non-military oriented businesses in the US and Europe have tried hard to develop and expand economic trade with Iran. But these efforts have been hampered, if not to say completely negated, by other, unbending elements on both sides of the divide which have acted vigorously to undermine and block the achievement of such a goal. On the Iranian side sits a bizarre mix of hardliners in the regime itself and a vociferous but largely defunct exiled opposition group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which, seeing no hope of success through its own efforts, courts hawkish proponents of US military intervention in Iran. More importantly, on the US side we have seen the generic influence of pro-Israeli groups and personalities which regard Iran as the major threat to Israel's best interests, and therefore an enemy not to be negotiated with. For these, Iran does genuinely reside in an "axis of evil". The traditional focus for this enmity - Iran's support for anti-Israel groups Hezbollah and Hamas - and more recently, doubts about Tehran's nuclear ambitions, has been eclipsed by the new complication added to the region by the removal of Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Although few would deny the benefits of his removal, the move has deeply affected the checks and balances in the region, and perhaps the country most affected is Iran. For Iran, to have its enemy travel thousands of miles on a military adventure to establish a pro-US regime in Iraq with the potential to continue Saddam's aggressive policy toward the Islamic republic is not acceptable. As the only country which openly refuses to accept the legitimacy of Israel, a further cause for concern for Iran is the presence of Israeli intelligence operatives in Iraq. Iran will understandably want to use its well-established contacts there to counter such a threat from Iraqi territory. For the US, on the other hand, it is the very existence of these close ties between Iran and Iraq, particularly the majority Shi'ite Iraqis, that is the crux of the problem. The emergence of a pro-Iran regime in Iraq is equally unacceptable for the US. In simple terms, they did not occupy Iraq for the advancement of Iran. Omar Musa, secretary general of the Arab League, speaking just before the occupation of Iraq, said the invasion would "open the gates of hell". Part of this hell for the US is the wide open opportunity afforded to its enemy to establish an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq, or at the very least to engineer the election of an Iraqi government dominated by Shi'ites subject to Iranian influence. Certainly, any gain Iran makes, especially as it would have been paid for by the US invasion of Iraq, is intolerable to Washington. And perhaps the Iranians know this better than anybody else. Given this mutual hostility and fear, it may be surprising to learn that what Iran actually wants is stability in Iraq rather than chaos and the disintegration of the country. There is no evidence either that Iran wants a rival Shi'ite Islamic republic on its doorstep. So in a sense, Iranian and US goals are the same. What separates them is the amount of influence each will have on the formation of the new government. So what is one to make of accusations that Iran is meddling in Iraq's scheduled January 30 election? Is Iran, as many believe, maneuvering cleverly to gain control of the country? Significantly, the insurgent bombing of Shi'ite cities did not provoke a violent retaliation. Rather, Iraq's Shi'ite leaders announced that they would answer these killings in the elections. In the rest of the country, the remaining 40% of Sunnis, Kurds and others are entrenched in day-to-day fighting in Kurdish and Sunni-controlled areas, so the effectiveness of their voting becomes more questionable day by day. The closer polling day looms, the more rumors surface that vote quotas could be implemented; an idea already pushed to the fore by some US officials and the Iraqi interim government. As of yet there is no clear wording as to what this actually means, but it indicates that in the likely event that pro-US elements are eliminated over the course of this election - because after all there is only so much you can do under such conditions to win the hearts and minds of the people in the streets to vote for your candidates - there should be a minimum number of seats - premier Iyad Allawi put the figure at about 20% - allocated to the Sunnis and the Kurds. That still leaves the problem of finding the right Sunnis and Kurds to choose from, but as the occupying force, perhaps this is a reasonable demand from the US. One way to legitimize such an action - and only one of them - is to emphasize Iran's influence on the Shi'ite community and interpret this as a threat to the democratization of Iraq. This would prepare the grounds, on the basis of fairness, to counteract an overwhelmingly pro-Iran outcome. Such an outcome would skew the already unbalanced situation of the region in a way unacceptable not only for the US and Israel, but even for the many others who are currently engaged in controlling the fast growth of Iran and its regional influence. Iran is trying its best to counter such action by not giving any more excuses than the existing ones, at least until the election takes place. Even top Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has added some Sunnis to his shopping list of candidates for the Shi'ite population to vote for. As much as he wishes for the departure of foreign forces, particularly from Iraq's Shi'ite religious cities, alienating the occupying power clearly is not in his benefit. Everybody, it seems, knows that in this particular stand-off the stakes are much higher than the problems presented by atomic energy or support for Palestinian groups by Iran. But perhaps the fundamental flaw in the US approach comes from the assumption that Iran's influence in Iraq is both greater than it actually is, and that what influence it has will have entirely negative effects for the US. The close ties between the Shi'ite clerics in Najaf and Qom in Iran go back many centuries. Many prominent clerics in the Iranian government hail from Najaf, or are first generation Iranians born to families emigrated from Najaf. Sistani is Iranian by birth. The language spoken at home by over 50% of the population of Najaf, Karbala and Kazemiah is Persian. For the general Shi'ite population, holy shrines exist in both countries. There is little either Iranian or Iraqi officials - or for that matter the Americans or British - can do to stop the influx of pilgrims from Iran desperate to reach the long-denied shrines in Karbala, Najaf and Kazemiah. With ties as close as this it is unlikely that Iran would even need to pressure Iraq's Shi'ite leaders into putting forward sympathetic candidates, let alone actually dictate lists of candidates. Over the last two decades of the 20th century, many Iraqi Shi'ite leaders enjoyed the hospitality of Iran while escaping persecution by Saddam Hussein. Long before the US turned its back on Saddam - and especially during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, when the US vetoed Iran's complaints at the UN Security Council about Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against Iranian soldiers - Iran supported Iraqi dissidents who were working hard from inside Iran to overthrow the Iraqi dictator. Many Kurdish groups in the north, too, still maintain their close relations with Iran, which had provided shelter whenever Kurds were attacked by Saddam or by his mercenaries, the Mujahideen-e Khalq. Saddam for his part employed the MKO as his own private army, an adjunct to the Iraqi military, to counter Iraqi opposition moves from inside Iran and to aggravate Iran by carrying out blind terrorist acts in the streets of Iran. Although the number of MKO members never reached more than a few thousand (compared with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Iran) nevertheless they were used to their full potential. The fall of Saddam in this respect can be considered a victory for which the Iranians as much as Iraqi dissidents can be expected to show gratitude. So will US maneuvering against Iran to curtail its influence in Iraq really work? This depends on what the aim is. If it is about preparing the grounds for a military crackdown on Iran, bombing its nuclear facilities and reducing the country's infrastructure to such a level that it would not and could not pose a threat to US interests and to Israel for the foreseeable future, then the issue needs much more heat than this, and therefore much more fuel. Iran has long passed a point of no return in its social, political and technological progress. The heat that it can withstand is much greater now than many could have envisaged even a few short years ago. The Islamic republic has proven its maturity in its recent nuclear negotiations with the European Union, its role and conduct in Afghanistan and its ever-expanding economic ties with China, the Far East, Russia and now the EU. Not many would disagree that to prepare the grounds for a military showdown against Iran, while not impossible, will not be a short-term scenario. But for those keen to pursue this path, time is short. A longer-term scenario will only allow the Iranians to establish themselves to an even greater extent, both nationally and internationally. However, if the goal is to curtail the unacceptable behavior of the Iranian regime, forcing it to play its games according to accepted international laws and traditions and to become a fair player, respecting others in the region and beyond so that its role in Iraq and its enmity toward Israel is moderated, then the only suggestion left is to actually put a carrot in the other hand and see the difference. The social, political and economic structure of Iranian society, as well as the ruling regime itself, have come to a point of desperation. The country has grown to its fullest possible extent within the limits imposed by standing outside the free markets of the free world. Iran desperately needs to open up, and this phenomenon is not unappreciated, especially by the country's leaders. A direct appeal for Iranian help in Iraq would probably go much further to bringing Iran into a position of cooperation with the US over democratization of the country than threats from an Egyptian president who admits himself to having big problems because of US policies in the Middle East, or from the young King Abdullah of Jordan, who is regarded by 90% of his country's population as still learning his homework and too naive to effectively stand in his father's shoes. Provocation by the US Department of Defense or the Iraqi interim government's defense minister is not taken seriously by the Iranians. And as divided as they are over internal affairs, their answers to the outside world have shown that they speak with one voice when it comes to foreign affairs. Asking for their help in establishing a fair election in Iraq (as they helped in Afghanistan) presents a much more realistic method of ensuring not only better representation in the coming election but also in maintaining it afterwards. The Iranians, backed by what they have constructed internally over the past 20 years, no longer respond to threats. They are instead desperate to find partners, allies and especially investors from the free world. For that they would go to almost any extent to prove their commitment to the security and stability of the region and beyond, as they tried to do during the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. To achieve this, they would even start paying out if they are allowed to help create a calm, fair and reasonable election in Iraq, in so far as their influence does reach. And who knows, once started, this rapprochement could lead the way to closing the gates of hell again and finding real solutions to the Middle East crisis. The hope and the will can be found in many parts of the world, including the European Union, the United States and even Israel. But again, we must wait for the Bush administration to catch up.

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