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Tehran's Defiance.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a former IRGC officer who has become the chief spokesman for the supremacists, on May 2 reiterated that "Iran is a nuclear country and will not retreat one iota from its nuclear rights". His message was directed at the Sharm el-Shaikh international conference on Iraq held on May 3-4 (see below). But There was another important meeting last week, in London, where representatives of the "five plus one" (the five permanent UNSC powers, plus Germany) gathered to discuss what to do with Tehran's continuing defiance of UN resolutions to stop uranium enrichment and the reported progress by the EU's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana regarding his latest talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. Solana and Larijani are due to meet again this week.

Returning from a three-day visit to Iraq, where he met with Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority for Iraq's Shi'ites, Larijani told the Iranian press that Sistani had informed him on May 2 that the US had been holding meetings with "Iraqi terrorist groups", i.e., Sunni insurgents who now are opposed to the Neo-Salafis.

Sistani's willingness to give an audience to Larijani on the eve of the Iraq conference of Sharm el-Shaikh had high symbolic value, reminding the world of Iran's close ties to the Shi'ite power hierarchy in Iraq. "Iran has so much influence in Iraq, with both Shi'ites and Sunnis, that it can wipe out any American and European plan for Iraq", writes the hardline Iranian daily Kayhan.

A pre-conference flurry of diplomatic activities which went into getting Iran's consent to participate at Sharm el-Shaikh was indicative of the key role played by Iran with respect to Iraq's stability. According to Iranian political commentator Javid Ghorban Oghli, Tehran had serious misgivings about the Egyptian location of the conference. Only after serious lobbying by the Iraqis, led by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibrai, who visited Tehran recently, and PM Nouri al-Maliki, who went to Cairo to make sure about the host country's intentions, did Iran agreed to participate. Still, according to a Tehran University political scientist, Iran was wary of the conference agenda being pushed by "certain [Sunni Arab] states to include a new constitution, the rehabilitation of Ba'thist officers and their recruitment into the Iraqi Army, and dialogue between the Iraqi government and terrorist groups".

Tehran has made it clear it is opposed to all these measures. Another Tehran concern was that the US will exploit any dialogue with Iran at Sharm el-Shaikh for its "hostile intentions", by arguing that it went the extra mile in the diplomatic path to resolve the nuclear stalemate.

US and Iranian ambassadors on May 4 had a meeting at Sharm el-Shaikh, after Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki walked away from an opportunity to speak to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over dinner on May 3 because of the presence of a woman violinist in a red dress. The encounter lasted only a few minutes. But it was a further sign of a new US willingness to engage with regimes which oppose its policies and which it had sought to isolate. Tehran ruled out any substantive meeting with the US before the US military released five Iranians held in Iraq since January.

In a departure from recent policy, Ms Rice met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu'allem on May 3. The 30-minute talks were the highest level meeting since Washington pulled its ambassador out of Damascus in 2005, in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri (see news19-IraqShi'itesNeedUSmay7-07). Ms Rice had been hoping to speak to Mottaki at the conference dinner. But Mottaki on May 4 told a press conference he left the dinner, where he was supposed to be seated directly across from Ms Rice, because there was "something wrong" with its "Islamic standards", a reference to the violinist.

The FT on May 5 quoted the US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker as saying the five Iranian detainees "will have their case reviewed a couple months down the road", adding: "It goes beyond the limits of imagination to characterise these guys as diplomatic officers or consular officers [as Iran does]". The US accuses the five of being members of the Quds force.

The Sharm el-Shaikh meeting, partly intended to break the ice between the US and Iraq's neighbours, ended with a communique calling on governments to work to stabilise Iraq. It produced an Arab League pledge to resume preparations for a national reconciliation conference that has been put on hold for more than a year. The conference reaffirmed the creation of several working groups to deal with issues involving Iraq and its neighbours, including border security, in which Iran is expected to participate. US and Iraqi officials have said they have detected some signs that Iraq's neighbours are cracking down on support for militants.

At his news conference, Mottaki described US troops as "terrorists" and lashed out at Washington over the continued detention of the five Iranians. He said: "To create a safe haven for those terrorists who try to turn Iraqi territory into a base for attacking Iraq's neighbours should be condemned". But Ms Rice on May 2 told PM Maliki he had to work harder to convince Iraq's Arab neighbours of his commitment to heal sectarian divides and ensure more participation by Sunnis. Rice told Maliki in a 90-minute meeting that "progress has to take place as rapidly as possible" towards political reconciliation among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups. The New York Times on May 3 quoted a senior US official as saying after the Rice-Maliki meeting that negative Arab views of Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government were skewed by a fixation on the Sunni-Shi'ite divide, based on information from "interested parties" inside Iraq. The official said that, while the Bush administration shared their concerns about Sunni rights and Iran's growing influence in Baghdad, the answer "is not exclusion, passivity and ostracisation of Iraq" by its neighbours.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Date:May 7, 2007
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