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Iran, Syria Look to Iraq Election with Anticipation, Concern

Two of Iraq's neighbors have particularly strong concerns about the conduct and outcome of Sunday's election. The vote in Iraq puts some stark choices before the leaders of Iran and Syria.

Iran and Syria both opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. But they appear to have carved out starkly different approaches to the Iraqi election.

Analysts believe there have been intense debates within Iran's ruling inner circles about what tack to take with the elections. There are those in Tehran's leadership, they say, who are simply happy to see U.S. forces bogged down in occupation. And, there are those who believe Iran could gain political influence, if the Shi'ite Muslim majority assumes power in Iraq.

Glenn Robinson, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in California, says Iran appears to be content - for now at least - to step back and see what happens in the elections. "In Iran, there is this sense of siege, basically, with this sense that Americans are on all of its borders, surrounding it. So, they do in general want to see the U.S. not do well in Iraq," he said. "On the other hand, they see the elections - and I think they're right on this - as thrusting into power their co-religionists in Iraq, because the Shia are obviously going to do very, very well in the election, and I think there's a sense that that helps Iranian interests in the region more generally."

Michael Rubin, who was political adviser to the now-disbanded U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, says that does not mean Iraqi Shi'ites will obey any dictates from Tehran. He says the United States may have underestimated Iraqi resistance to occupation, but Iran has also made its own misjudgment. "What the Iranians underestimated was the question of Iraqi nationalism. Even very religious Iraqi Shia are opposed to Iran, not because Iran is Shia or not Shia, but because Iran is not Arab, because it's Iranian. The Iraqis can be pretty darn prickly when it comes to Iranians in their midst," he said.

Gary Sick, a Middle East specialist who served on the National Security Council under three U.S. presidents, says there is little proof that Iran has been aiding the insurgents, who are believed to be primarily radical Sunni, rather than Shi'ite, Muslims. But Mr. Sick, who now teaches at Colombia University, says there is still plenty of sympathy in Iran for the Iraqi insurgency.

"There's very little evidence that the Iranians have been supporting the Sunni jihadists, people like Zarqawi and others, who have been carrying out the bulk of the car bombings, suicide bombings, and the like. But there's no question that there are Iranians who sympathize very much with their objective of getting the Americans out of there, and who do not weep at the fact that American forces have been hit and are tied down," he said.

For Syria, the choices are much starker. Martha Kessler, a Middle East specialist and recently retired 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, says that, while Syria is bitterly opposed to the occupation of Iraq, it does not want to find itself a target of U.S. wrath. "We have their attention, and they, I think, are very - intimidated isn't quite the word, but they're certainly nervous about what we might do with regard to them, and with regard to their chief ally in the region, Iran, so that their interest, their primary interest, is to not do anything that would agitate us. And it has been a difficult tightrope to walk," she said.

The Naval Postgraduate School's Glenn Robinson says Syria wants to do what it can to help the insurgents sabotage the elections, but is being very careful not to get caught. "If you want to summarize Syria's position, it's to do what it can, either by turning a blind eye, or perhaps even active assistance, to do what it can to get the Iraqi occupation to fail, but not so much as to really get caught and have the focus of attention be on it," he said. "So, Syria doesn't want to get caught with its hand in the cookie jar (get caught interfering), at least too deeply in the cookie jar, but it has no interest at all in any kind of successful outcome in Iraq."

Analysts say the level of U.S. rhetoric aimed at Tehran and Damascus has been ratcheted up in the leadup to the elections, with the Bush administration warning Iran and Syria not to interfere in Iraq's fledgling political process.