MOSCOW. (Political scientist Ilgar Velizade /Azerbaijan/ for RIA Novosti) - It is already clear that the Iranian president's upcoming visit to Iraq will not be just a regional event.
This is a visit by the leader of a once hostile state, of U.S. enemy number one, to the country which is practically controlled by the U.S. Current relations between Iran and Iraq will largely determine developments in the Middle East and surrounding areas. In general, Ahmadinejad's intention to go to Baghdad and his tour last year of several Arab countries show that Iran is seriously revising its policy in the region. Iran wants the world to perceive it differently, and is persistently working on its international image.
In order to understand Iran's role, it is enough to look at its relations with neighbors. Since times immemorial, Iran has not had close friends in the region. It has always asserted itself as the regional leader and resisted any encroachments on this status. The Persians were fighting against Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turkomans, and the British. Now Iran is a pain in the neck for the United States. The Iranians tend to see themselves as an exclusive nation with providential privileges. This faith has struck deep root in their minds, and become a foundation of their statehood. It has become an instrument uniting dozens of big and small ethnic groups into a single community, which is called the Iranian nation.
However, this striving to stand out against the general background has always spoiled Iran's ties with its neighbors. Sunni Arabs have criticized it for splitting the Arab world. The Turks are suspicious of Iran's attempts to enhance its influenced in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Pakistan, that also claims the role of a regional power, is closely watching Iran's actions, in particular as regards Afghanistan. In turn, the latter sees Iran as a major center of political influence.
Iran's opponents, primarily the United States, are trying to exploit these contradictions. However, recently Iranian diplomats have launched a vigorous onslaught and managed to destroy some of America's plans in the region. I will not venture to affirm that it was last year's Arab tour by Ahmadinejad that compelled U.S. President George W. Bush to make a similar trip in the beginning of this year, but there is no doubt that the Iranian president's tour prompted Bush to choose particular subjects for discussion.
As for the Iranian president's talks with his regional counterparts, one or two of his positions are always emphasized at them. The first one is an appeal to be friends without being hostile to anybody, and the second one is that Iran should not be feared and the Iranian nuclear program is not that dangerous as it is painted.
Judging by the results of the last trip, Ahmadinejad has managed to persuade Arab leaders that they will benefit from friendship with Iran, and that its nuclear program is no less dangerous than that of Pakistan.
It is hard to predict what he will discuss with Jalal Talabani, one of the longest serving figures in Kurdish politics, but the talks are not long in coming. It is clear that both countries need dialogue. For this reason, the Iranian leader will try to attract less attention to Shiite problems, if not skip them altogether. Tehran has one more concern - compensation for the damage sustained in the Iranian-Iraqi war of 1980-1988. Baghdad is trying to avoid its discussion on the grounds that it is not going to pay for Saddam Hussein's mistakes. Relations between the two neighbors are also periodically spoiled by the notorious Kurdish problem.
Pejak, a terrorist organization of anti-Iranian Kurdish guerrillas is operating in the north of Iraq together with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan - PKK), which is making regular inroads into Turkey. Pejak is suspected of being financed by the U.S. State Department through proxy funds and non-governmental agencies. Although the Kurdish leaders of Iraq are doing all they can to disassociate themselves from Pejak, they do not sound very convincing, at least for Tehran.
In principle, Tehran is not very keen on accusing Baghdad of all sins. The Iranian leaders are aiming their angry rhetoric primarily at the United States. They have said more than once that the United States is taking vigorous steps to sow Sunni-Shiite discord not only in Iraq, but also on a global scale. Tehran has also blamed Washington for trying to weaken Iran's regional positions by fanning Sunni-Shiite strife. When Washington blamed Iran for explosions in Iraqi Shiite mosques, which killed dozens of worshippers, Tehran sent a strong message to the U.S. Administration.
Representatives of the Iranian ruling elite and supreme Muslim leaders urged for Sunni-Shiite unity both in Iraq and the rest of the region in the face of an outside threat. Iranian Parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel bluntly accused the "occupants" of attempts to split Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. He said that acts of terror in Iraqi Shiite mosques "will not make Muslims fall out with their Imams," and emphasized that the motives behind them were abundantly clear - to sidetrack attention from the failure of occupational policy in Iraq, and destabilize the situation in that country and neighboring regions.
To summarize, Iran is taking measures to create the image of a country, which does not threaten its neighbors but wants to develop honest and mutually advantageous relations with them. But it remains unclear how it is going to seek these goals, having bad relations with Israel and the United States.
As all regional oil-producers, Iran continues accumulating wealth. It has money for everything, even for foreign policy, which is becoming increasingly costly. But the United States is still the main client for the Arab countries, and they are not too enthusiastic about changing the existing system of relations. In this situation, Iran has to look for other opportunities for persuading its neighbors.
Eastern diplomacy is an exchange of benefits. One always has to have something up one's sleeve, which would be too tempting for its partner. Iran has to pay dearly for such proposals, but it is displaying its readiness to do so. Tehran has declared that it will create conditions for the growth of investment from the region's countries, and will promote multilateral and bilateral contacts with them in every possible way.
Be that as it may, it is important for Iran to be understood and supported in the context of events in the Middle East, and particularly because its nuclear program has been a key international issue in the last few years. In this case, Iran will play what it considers a befitting role in the region and the rest of the world, using its growing possibilities. To an extent, success of these efforts will depend on the Iranian leader's visit to Iraq.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of Trend