Quiet Cooperation as U.S., Iran Battle Common Enemy

By Marc Perelman

Published April 04, 2003, issue of April 04, 2003.
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Despite their declared enmity and public clashes over terrorism and nuclear reactors, Tehran and Washington have been quietly cooperating in waging the war on their common enemy, Saddam Hussein.

To be sure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly warned Iran last week to keep the Badr brigades, the Iran-based military wing of an Iraqi opposition group, out of Iraq. But observers noted that he did not accuse Iran per se. Moreover, the American government has actually been in direct contact for several months with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, an Iran-backed Iraqi opposition group, hosting its officials and using them as go-betweens with Tehran.

This has led many observers to believe Rumsfeld’s remarks stem not from concerns that Tehran might be entering the war on Iraq’s side, but rather from fears that irregular troops controlled by Tehran might add confusion to the battlefield in southern Iraq.

And while some hawks have been pushing the administration to topple the regime in Tehran — a perspective that clearly worries Iranian leaders — there have been several instances of American-Iranian cooperation in Iraq, just as there were in Afghanistan.

Most cases have involved Iran helping American forces to control radical Islamic groups operating in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.

In one instance, Iranian intelligence mediated a dispute between several Islamic groups and the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, defusing a potential local conflict within the larger Iraqi conflict.

The United States became embroiled in the complex dispute after American troops hunting the radical group Ansar al Islam, which has been accused of links to both Saddam and Al Qaeda, inadvertently struck a village controlled by another, more moderate Islamic group.

Iranian officials helped negotiate a cease-fire and evacuate the remaining elements of the moderate group, news reports said. Moreover, Iran sealed its border to prevent Ansar militants from fleeing from American and Kurdish attacks, intelligence sources said.

Tehran also reacted with uncharacteristic calm after at least three American missiles went off course and landed in Iran. Iranian officials publicly accepted American explanations that it was a mistake.

The biggest show of cooperation is probably still ahead, observers say, when American forces come up against the main Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedeen-el-Khalk. Saddam Hussein has for years harbored the group, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department.

While allowing the group to launch attacks in Iran from Iraqi territory, Saddam has used its militants as a paramilitary force in the country, observers say. Although the main sources of paramilitary attacks on American troops have been Iraqi groups, the Fedayeen and Al Quds units, Mujahedeen-el-Khalk could well be next. This will put Washington in the odd position of wiping out the staunchest enemy of one its main foes.

The British ambassador to Iran, Richard Dalton, was quoted in the French daily Le Monde last week as saying that he had personally guaranteed the Iranian leadership that the mujahedeen would not be allowed to stay in Iraq.

The coalition plan, according to several experts, is indeed to wipe out the group.

“[Mujahedeen-el-Khalk] will be toast, at least insofar as they have any future in Iraq,” David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, told the Forward. “This is one thing we can do as a gesture to Tehran, but it is well worth doing on its own merits.”

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