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Iran's Reaction to War in Neighboring Iraq is Uncertain - 2002-10-11

Iran is monitoring closely the debate over whether to wage a war against Baghdad. The government is reported to be preparing camps for Iraqi refugees along its common border, much as it did during the 1991 Gulf War. Iran's reaction to war in neighboring Iraq is uncertain.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told Britain's foreign secretary this week that any military action against Baghdad could destablize the region. He pointed out that Iran already had first-hand experience with Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq launched toxic weapons against Iran during their eight-year battle in the 1980s, killing tens of thousands of Iranians.

Mutual hostility still simmers, but Middle East analyst Youssef Ibrahim of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations says it is not clear how much Iran would gain by Saddam Hussein's ouster. "Saddam Hussein has not really since 1991 been a threat to Iran, " he said. "Our containment of Saddam Hussein has been a success. And I don't think they, at this point, see any physical gains from his disappearance except for personal vengeance."

Mr. Ibrahim says Iranian leaders are suspicious of U.S. motives for a regime change in Iraq. They remember Washington's support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Even though Washington now seeks Saddam Hussein's ouster, Mr. Ibrahim says U.S. officials have warned that Iran could be a target too.

Last January, President George Bush described Iran as part of an axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea.

Analyst Ibrahim says if hard-liners in Iran's leadership feel threatened, they could respond by fueling trouble through terrorist groups they support elsewhere in the region. "I think we have not left much room for goodwill with this regime so I would expect that they will not sit on the side and I'm thinking of their surrogates in the region, " said Youssef Ibrahim. "Their biggest surrogate is Hezbollah and between Hezbollah in Lebanon and the rather hawkish government of Ariel Sharon sparks will fly."

In contrast, Iran expert Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University predicts Teheran can improve its international standing just by sitting quietly on the sidelines, as it did during the Afghan conflict and during the 1991 Gulf War. "Iran can live with an American toppling of Saddam as long as Iran is not next," he said. "And I think the American government has sent multiple and sometimes conflicting signals about the relationship of the campaign in Iraq and in Iran. But I think many of the signals thus far - and more recently - are that the United States is not going to use the action in Iraq as a springboard for similar actions in Iran."

Mr. Brumberg adds that Iran also must worry about the growing U.S. influence and military presence in states surrounding it. "There is among even reformists and foreign policy elites, the pragmatists, a concern about encirclement - a concern about the fact that the United States can build strong allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan," said Daniel Brumberg. "There are concerns about that and they are reflected in a desire to make sure the United States does not impose itself on any post-Saddam Iraq."

Iran expert Ray Takeyh of Yale University says a change in Baghdad would provide Iran's Shiite Muslim leaders opportunities to extend their influence beyond Iran's borders. "The long-term beneficiary of the Iraq campaign may in fact be Iran, given the fact that it removes the weapons of mass destruction calculus from its strategic planning," he said. "It potentially will remove a Sunni-dominated regime, giving Iran greater influence in Iraq."

In the end, Iran watchers say Teheran's reaction to turmoil in Iraq is hard to predict because of the perennial power struggle between hard-liners who feel threatened by Washington and reformist factions more anxious to repair Iran's ties with the West.