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Keeping the hostility alive.

AS THE GULF region awaits a possible gradual shift in US policy towards both Iran and Iraq, despite President Clinton's apparent continuation of his predecessor George Bush's approach, the propaganda war between Tehran and Baghdad has hotted up. Each side is warning its neighbours and the world at large of the dangers of allowing the other to rearm. Iraq has tried to portray itself as a counterweight to possible Iranian designs in the Gulf. Iraqi officials have raised the spectre of a resurgent and expansionist Iran, with nuclear ambitions, as part of Baghdad's bid to persuade Arab states and the West to let Iraq rebuilt itself and eventually redress the regional balance of power. Iran, for its part, while stressing its continued opposition to President Saddam Hussein and his government, has said that it is against the break-up of Iraq and that maintaining regional stability is the prime objective of its foreign policy.

Although the Iraqi armed forces have lost much of their equipment since the 1991 Gulf war, officials in Baghdad maintain that Iraq needs a strong army to defend itself. "This has traditionally been an area of certain aggressive designs. We feel we need a strong defensive capability to maintain peace and stability", General Amir Hammoudi al Saadi, a former head of military industrialisation (and currently minister of industry and minerals), said recently. The newspaper, Babil, of which Saddam Hussein's son Uday is officially the editor, has warned that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at producing nuclear weapons that Tehran would use as a deterrent "which would give it freedom of action and movement of its conventional arms arsenal in the Arab region".

Another Iraqi paper, Al Jumhuriyah, said that ever since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iran had never given up the principle of exporting the Islamic revolution. The paper asked why the United States and its Western allies were "standing idle in the face of Iran's military and expansionist ambitions". Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, has argued that in view of Iran's expenditure of billions of dollars on sophisticated weaponry, and the reassertion of Iranian claims to Abu Musa and the Tunb islands in the Gulf, the time has come to lift the international economic embargo against Iraq. An end to sanctions would, in his words, "enable Iraq to play its natural role as a counterbalance to Iranian forces. The countries of the region, headed by Iraq, are the ones which can deal with the Iranian threat."

Iranian defence minister, Akbar Torkan said in March that the countries of the West, led by the United States, were conducting a propaganda campaign about Iran's alleged access to nuclear weapons in order to sell the arms left from the 1991 war to the Gulf states. Torkan said Iran's defence budget for the new Iranian year which began on 21 March would come to $850 million. "The Saudi Arabian defence budget is over $16.5 billion, 20 times that of Iran, while the population of Saudi Arabia is about one quarter of Iran's", he commented.

Iran's view is that the real threat to regional security arises from the continued presence there of Western military forces. It holds Baghdad responsible to a large extent for this long-term consequence of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Reacting to the US-led Western air strikes against Iraq in January in the last few days of President Bush's presidency, Tehran Radio commented that although America and its allies had used what it called disproportionate force against Iraq, they were continuing to manipulate Saddam Hussein for their own advantage. "The Western countries see Iraq's miscalculations as opportunities for political exploitation, furthering influence and making massive financial gains", the radio said. In the words of Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, the United States could get rid of Saddam Hussein "as easily as killing a fly", but preferred not to do so because he helped provide a pretext for its continued military presence in the Gulf.

Nor have Iranian officials forgotten or forgiven Baghdad for starting the eight-year war that ended in 1988. At a news conference for foreign reporters attending Iran's revolution anniversary in February, President Rafsanjani described the Baath Party in Iraq as "the cause of instability in the region; in their aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past, in their aggression against Kuwait, and also in the way they treat their own people". But the solution did not lie in foreign powers such as the United States coming to the rescue, which would increase the danger of regional instability, Rafsanjani added.

He recalled there were many problems outstanding between the two countries, including Iran's insistence on receiving war reparations and the issue of the prisoners of war still held by both sides. If Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party remained in power and wanted to cooperate with Iran, then Tehran would do likewise, as it would with any other neighbour, the president said. But if "a popular government" came to power in Iraq, Rafsanjani went on, "naturally we will be more comfortable in cooperating with it. If there really was a plan to make the people take control of their own fate, while preserving Iraq as a whole, Iran would actively cooperate."

After the 1991 Gulf war, Iran supported the unsuccessful uprising by the Shiites of southern Iraq. Although Iran continues to provide a measure of military backing to the Iraqi Shiites, it appears more concerned now to prevent the re-emergence of Iraq as a regional power than to support the formation of a breakaway Shiite entity in southern Iraq, with the negative consequences that might have for the regional stability Iran advocates.

In the last year Iran has also provided food and fuel to the Kurds of northeastern Iraq, to help them overcome the internal economic blockade imposed by Baghdad. At the same time, along with Turkey and Syria, Iran has discouraged Iraqi Kurdish separatism, fearful of the possible impact on its own Kurdish population.

When the foreign ministers of these three countries met in Damascus in February, they agreed that "the Iraqi people should not be submitted to continuous punishment on account of the Baghdad regime." But all three remained firmly opposed to the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, and repeated their commitment to preserving Iraq's unity and territorial integrity, which they said were essential for achieving regional security and stability.

Baghdad regularly accuses Tehran of sending sabotage squads to make mischief in Iraq. Tehran just as routinely dismisses these claims as Iraq's attempts to distract attention from its worsening domestic situation. Another source of tension between the two countries is the presence in Iraq of camps housing several thousand fighters belonging to the military wing of the largest exiled Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin e Khalq.

The National Resistance Council, the Iranian opposition grouping dominated by the Mujahedin, held a nine-day congress in Iraq at the end of last year, during which it said it had broadened its base and become more representative of Iranian society by appointing over 100 members. But the Mujahedin are becoming less reliant on their Iraqi hosts, and seem to be pinning their future hopes on receiving increased support from the new US administration, particularly now that they claim to have a new leadership council which advocates democracy and Western-style human rights.

Amidst the revival of the propaganda war between Iran and Iraq, there has also been the occasional indication that Iran is trying to improve relations with its neighbour. In mid-February, for example, reports citing Iraqi Kurdish sources including Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader, Jalal Talabani, said that Iran had reopened its border with Iraq in the Qasr e Shirin area and allowed cross-border trade to resume. But President Rafsanjani's insistence that Baghdad has to implement all UN resolutions, on the 1980-88 war as well as those arising from its invasion of Kuwait, make any meaningful rapprochement seem a long way off.

This continuing mutual suspicion is mirrored on the Iraqi side in remarks such as those by Vice-President Taha Yasin Ramadan, who said in February: "Iran is elusive and has a regime that harbours rancour against Iraq and the Arab nation. It tries to take advantage of this nation's current circumstances, fragmentation and division, and abnormal conditions." Ramadan also accused Iran of a "betrayal of trust" in refusing to return over 100 aircraft of the Iraqi air force which were flown to Iran for safety during the 1991 war. Iran has hinted that it wants to offset the value of these aircraft against hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations it is claiming from Iraq for the 1980-88 war.

In the West, mounting fears about Iran's rearmament drive may tempt some to argue in favour of Baghdad's gradual diplomatic rehabilitation as the first step towards reconstructing a balance of power between Iraq and Iran. With both countries continuing to attract the West's suspicions, Arab commentators have suggested that neither should try to enhance its standing and influence at the other's expense. But the Gulf states, who regard both Iran and Iraq as potential attackers, also have an interest in keeping alive the hostility. For the time being, the legacy of enmity between them appears to outweigh whatever future interests they may have in common.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; enmity between Iraq and Iran
Author:Feuilherade, Peter
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Iraq: in a state of limbo.
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