When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Baghdad March 2 for the first visit by an Iranian head of state since 1979, Iraq’s political delegation greeted him with open arms. Some even offered hugs (ChiTrib). Yet a cold shoulder by the United States may set the post-meeting tone. Washington made no secret of its desire for a quick and quiet visit by Ahmadinejad. Iraqi officials told Newsweek on February 26 the Iranian president would not take part in any talks with coalition leaders; Washington was even less eager to strike up conversation. “I’d refer you to the Iraqi government,” U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in January when asked about the trip. “Who they have or haven’t invited to visit their country is up to them.”
That may be true, but some analysts say Iraq’s gesture to Ahmadinejad also represents deeper shifts, including rapidly growing regional influence for Tehran. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Baath party five years ago was seen as a political coup (New York Review of Books) for the regional ambitions of Shiite-led Iran. Today Iran’s influence in Iraq extends to Shiite businesses and political parties—cooperation some Iraqi leaders say will be strengthened (PressTV) by bilateral talks.
Just how much influence Iran wields over its former foe is unclear. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody eight-year border war in the 1980s, during which many Iraqi Shiites fled to Iran for cover. U.S. officials believe Iran exerts significant influence over Shiite clerics Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, both of whom command powerful militias. Yet experts disagree (Reuters) on whether Iran’s meddling is meant to destabilizing Iraq or simply to keep Tehran’s options open after the United States exits Iraq. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr suggests Iran is doing what it can to ensure Sunni Baathists never return to power, while Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group says he sees “no sign that Iran wants to shape Iraq politically.” Iraq’s Sunnis, meanwhile, protested Ahmadinejad’s weekend visit; some said it degraded Iraq’s dignity (NYT).
The Bush administration, meanwhile, continues to lobby for containment of Iran’s regional accession, with some success. Bolstered by a new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that raised questions about Iran's nuclear ambitions (PDF), the UN Security Council approved a third round of sanctions (BBC) March 3 aimed at pressuring Tehran to suspend its enrichment of uranium. The New York Times reports the push was led by Europeans and the IAEA, largely because a surprise U.S. intelligence report released in December contradicted previous Bush administration statements on Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. Moscow, which along with Beijing had resisted the sanctions hammer, appears to be warming to the idea. Russia’s envoy to the United Nations has delivered Tehran an ultimatum (Moscow News) to halt enrichment. If they refuse, an editorial in Lebanon’s Daily Star says the fallout “will be the direct result of Iran’s political posturing.”
Yet as much as Washington pushes a policy of isolationism vis-à-vis Tehran, there are signals that Iran will not be contained. Some are symbolic, like Iranian ballistic missile testing or the fact that security for Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq was partially enabled by the U.S. military (Stratfor). But other signs are more concrete. Iranian cooperation with Persian Gulf states, for instance, has improved in recent months. Despite sanction threats by the West, including warnings to steer clear of Iran’s banks (NYT), Tehran has also managed to extend economic links with Asia. The Economist Intelligence Unit noted in February 2008 that Iranian trade with South Korea reached $8 billion in 2007, and Chinese firms have increased their purchases of Iranian crude. And as Iason Athanasiadis, a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, writes in the Christian Science Monitor, economic and tactical victories have convinced some in Iran “the time has come for their country to lead the region.”