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Beside A Crumbling Iraq, Iran Looks On With Alarm Bells Ringing


Alarm bells are ringing in Iran now that Sunni militants are making such a huge claim in neighboring Iraq. Iran is the center of Shiite power in the region. It supports Iraq's Shiite-led government and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that Tehran is pursuing even more military support for its allies. But it also might be looking for a viable political solution in Iraq.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Into Tehran, where memories of Iran's bloody war against the Sunni led Iraq in the 1980s are still strong. The alliance of Sunni extremists from Syria and remnants of Iraq's old Baathist regime is seen as a serious threat. For example, analyst Juan Cole at the University of Michigan wrote recently that if the militants maintain control of the Iraq-Syria border. Iran will lose what he calls its land bridge to Lebanon, its primary route for arming the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which has assisted Iran in supporting the embattled Assad regime in Syria. Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, says as always there are conflicting points of views into Tehran about how to deal with the Iraq crisis. But at the moment, he says the military and security hawks seem to be calling the shots, and their support is not limited to training Shiite militias in Iraq.

SALMAN SHAIKH: They're directly involved. They're plowing in huge amounts of arms, so as the U.S. has agonized over 300 advisors, they're sending in plane-loads of weapons.

KENYON: But Shaikh says the violence spilling over from Syria into Iraq appears to be stretching Iran's resources, leaving some hope that Tehran could eventually look more favorably on a political solution to the crisis.

SHAIKH: Because of course the Iranians are already heavily engaged in Syria, and now this Iraqi situation - this is a bit of a burden to be taking on, both in terms of men, expertise, training and money.

KENYON: Iran analyst Farideh Farhi with University of Hawaii is currently in Tehran, and she says more diplomatic-minded Iranian politicians, including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, don't have much influence over Iraq policy. But nonetheless she says even behind the hardline rhetoric coming from the supreme leader and the military establishment, there is a debate about whether a military solution can work or whether to adjust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's heavy-handed rule.

FARIDEH FARHI: The debate that is going on in Iran, somewhat quietly, is exactly what to do in relationship to the political solution in Iraq and whether or not to take a position that convinces Mr. Maliki to have a government that will be more open to other forces in the government or to push Mr. Maliki out completely.

KENYON: Analyst Colin Kahl at the Center for New American Security says at least some factions in Iran recognize that the Iraqi army probably cannot prevail over the Sunni insurgents without U.S. military help, while some in Washington understand that crafting a political solution via a unity government may not be possible without Tehran pushing Baghdad to go along.

COLIN KAHL: So the Iranians in a sense may need us on the military side of the equation, and we may need the Iranians on the political side of the equation. And while we may not agree on everything, there might be sufficient overlap for us to work together to help resolve the crisis in Iraq.

KENYON: Further complicating things for Tehran is the growing strength of Iraq's Kurdish minority, which stirs anxiety in Iran about its own Kurds. Analyst and columnist Soli Ozel in Istanbul says Tehran is dismayed to see another neighbor, Turkey, reversing decades of policy and building ties to the Kurds in Iraq as they take advantage of the chaos to seize territory and resources.

SOLI OZEL: Iran must be even unhappier than Turkey because of the empowerment of the Kurds and certainly because of the closer and closer relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

KENYON: Whether Washington and Tehran can overcome their long animosity to fashion even an arm’s length cooperation on Iraq remains unclear. But analysts say whether acting as an international coalition or on its own, Tehran can be expected to do to whatever it can to defend the Shiite majority next door in Iraq and to make sure it holds sway over whatever government comes next in Baghdad. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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