January 29, 2007
Iranian Reveals Plan to Expand Role in Iraq*
By JAMES GLANZ
BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 — Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad outlined an ambitious
plan on Sunday to greatly expand its economic and military ties with
Iraq — including an Iranian national bank branch in the heart of the
capital — just as the Bush administration has been warning the Iranians
to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs.
Iran’s plan, as outlined by the ambassador, carries the potential to
bring Iran into further conflict here with the United States, which has
detained a number of Iranian operatives in recent weeks and says it has
proof of Iranian complicity in attacks on American and Iraqi forces.
The ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, said Iran was prepared to offer Iraq
government forces training, equipment and advisers for what he called
“the security fight.” In the economic area, Mr. Qumi said, Iran was
ready to assume major responsibility for Iraq reconstruction, an area of
failure on the part of the United States since American-led forces
overthrew Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago.
“We have experience of reconstruction after war,” Mr. Qumi said,
referring to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. “We are ready to transfer
this experience in terms of reconstruction to the Iraqis.”
Mr. Qumi also acknowledged, for the first time, that two Iranians seized
and later released by American forces last month were security
officials, as the United States had claimed. But he said that they were
engaged in legitimate discussions with the Iraqi government and should
not have been detained.
Mr. Qumi’s remarks, in a 90-minute interview over tea and large
pistachio nuts at the Iranian Embassy here, amounted to the most
authoritative and substantive response the Iranians have made yet to
increasingly belligerent accusations by the Bush administration that
Iran is acting against American interests in Iraq.
President Bush has said the American military is authorized to take
whatever action necessary against Iranians in Iraq found to be engaged
in actions deemed hostile.
The Iranian ambassador abruptly agreed to a longstanding request for the
interview — made repeatedly after the first American seizure of Iranians
here on Dec. 21 — and seemed eager to rebut the accusations.
The political and diplomatic standoff that followed the Dec. 21 raid
until the Iranians were released nine days later has contributed, along
with a dispute over the Iranian nuclear program, to greatly increased
tensions between the United States and Iran. This month, American forces
detained five more Iranians in a raid on a diplomatic office in the
northern city of Erbil.
While providing few details, the United States has said that evidence
gleaned in the Baghdad raid, made on an Iraqi Shiite leader’s
residential compound, proves the Iranians were involved in planning attacks.
How much direction, if any, Mr. Qumi was taking from his government was
unclear in the interview, in which he showed disdain for the American
accusations as well as a few flashes of restrained sarcasm.
He ridiculed the evidence that the American military has said it
collected, including maps of Baghdad delineating Sunni, Shiite and mixed
neighborhoods — the kind of maps, American officials have said, that
would be useful for militias engaged in ethnic slaughter. Mr. Qumi said
the maps were so common and easily obtainable that they proved nothing.
He declined to say whether he believed the maps bore sectarian markings
or address other pieces of evidence the Americans said they had found,
like manifests of weapons and material relating to the technology of
sophisticated roadside bombs. But that is not why the Iranians were in
the compound, he said.
“They worked in the security sector in the Islamic Republic, that’s
clear,” Mr. Qumi said, referring to Iran. But he said that the Iranians
were in Iraq because “the two countries agreed to solve the security
problems.” The Iranians “went to meet with the Iraqi side,” he said.
In a surprise announcement, Mr. Qumi said Iran would soon open a
national bank in Iraq, in effect creating a new Iranian financial
institution right under the Americans’ noses. A senior Iraqi banking
official, Hussein al-Uzri, confirmed that Iran had received a license to
open the bank, which he said would apparently be the first “wholly owned
subsidiary bank” of a foreign country in Iraq.
“This will enhance trade between the two countries,” Mr. Uzri said.
Mr. Qumi said the bank was just the first of what he said would be
several in Iraq — an agricultural bank and three private banks also
intend to open branches. Other elements of new economic cooperation, he
said, include plans for Iranian shipments of kerosene and electricity to
Iraq and a new agricultural cooperative involving both countries.
He would not provide specifics on Iran’s offer of military assistance to
Iraq, but said it included increased border patrols and a proposed new
“joint security committee.”
Any Iranian military assistance to Iraq would be fraught with potential
difficulties. Aside from provoking American objections, such assistance
could further alienate Sunni Arabs, many of whom already suspect that
Iran, overwhelmingly Shiite, is encouraging Iraq’s Shiite-led government
in persecuting them.
A number of American and Iraqi officials said Sunday that it was
difficult to respond to Mr. Qumi’s statements until they had been
communicated through official routes. A spokesman for the American
Embassy in Baghdad, Lou Fintor, declined to address the statements.
Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, said Sunday that the
United States had a significant body of evidence tying Iran to sectarian
attacks inside Iraq. “There is a high degree of confidence in the
information that we already have, and we are constantly accumulating
more,” Mr. McCormack said.
He did not address any of the specifics of Mr. Qumi’s comments about
plans for stronger economic and security ties, but said that Iran
currently plays “a negative role in many respects” in the country.
Iraqi officials also said that they could not comment on specific
programs until they had seen the details, but expressed a range of views
on the wisdom of expanding ties with Iran.
“We are welcoming all the initiatives to participate in the process of
reconstruction,” said Qasim Daoud, a former national security adviser
who is now a secular Shiite member of Parliament. “My belief is that our
strategic alliance is with the Americans, but at the same time we are
looking for the participation of any country that would like to
participate,” Mr. Daoud said.
Barham Salih, a deputy prime minister who is Kurdish and whose duties
include economic matters, took sharper issue with Mr. Qumi’s criticism
of the American presence.
“Iraqi national interest requires seeking good neighborly relations with
Iran as with other neighbors, but that requires respect for Iraqi
sovereignty,” Mr. Salih said.
Mr. Qumi spoke largely in Persian during the interview, but he
occasionally broke into English when he wanted to be certain that a
point had been conveyed forcefully.
Although Mr. Qumi was not given specific questions before the interview,
he was made aware of the general topics that would be covered and seemed
prepared with detailed answers in many cases. He seemed keen to give his
government’s view of what occurred in the early morning of Dec. 21, when
American forces raided the Baghdad compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one
of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders, who had traveled to Washington
three weeks before to meet President Bush.
Within the compound, the Iranians were seized in the house of Hadi
al-Ameri, who holds two powerful positions: he is chairman of the Iraqi
Parliament’s security committee and leader of the Badr Organization, the
armed wing of Mr. Hakim’s party, which spent years in exile in Iran.
Although the Americans have suggested that the Iranians were providing
support for militias like the Badr Organization, Mr. Qumi said that his
countrymen were dealing with Mr. Ameri in his government capacity.
The Iranians would not even have stayed the night in the compound
except, in a situation faced by many Baghdad residents, their business
lasted beyond the early-evening curfew and they were forced to spend the
night, Mr. Qumi said.
Mr. Qumi also warned the United States against playing out tensions in
what he called “the nuclear file” in Iraq. “We don’t need Iraq to pay
the cost of our animosity with the Americans,” Mr. Qumi said.
As the interview was breaking up, Mr. Qumi made one last stab at the
Americans. If Iran is allowed to undertake reconstruction activities in
Iraq, he said, all international construction companies would be
welcome. “Urge the American companies to come here,” he said.
Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Mark
Mazzetti from Washington.