Iran president to show off influence on Iraq visit

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a landmark trip to Iraq on Sunday seeking to show that Iran is an influential player in Iraqi politics which the United States can ill afford to isolate or ignore.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends a meeting with foreign ambassadors to commemorate the anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, February 10, 2008. Ahmadinejad makes a landmark trip to Iraq on Sunday seeking to show that Iran is an influential player in Iraqi politics which the United States can ill afford to isolate or ignore. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

The first visit by an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic revolution aims to boost business and other ties with a country with which Iran fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.

But the significance of the two-day trip, say analysts and diplomats, is that it is happening at all when Washington accuses Tehran of supplying weapons to militias that are killing U.S. troops. Tehran denies such charges.

“The main issue will be the foreign policy success of going to Iraq and coming back ... under the eyes of the Americans, when the Americans are talking about isolating Iran,” said one Western diplomat in Tehran.

At home, the Iranian president may welcome a foreign policy success to distract attention from the economy and double-digit inflation before a March parliamentary election that will test his popularity and indicate his chance for re-election in 2009.

Iranian officials have given little advance information about the visit.

Iraqi officials have urged Washington and Tehran, which have not had diplomatic ties for almost three decades, not to use Iraq as a proxy battleground to fight out their differences, which include a row over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The United States is pushing for a third round of U.N. sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt nuclear work Washington says is aimed at making atomic bombs. Tehran denies this.

“The influence of Iran in Iraq is very clear,” said Iranian commentator Amir Mohebian. “If the United States wants to use Iran’s influence in Iraq to keep security, it is better to have good relations ... not sending the message of sanctions.”

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In a bid to help quell violence, Iran and the United States have held three rounds of rare face-to-face talks. But Iran put off a fourth round because of unspecified technical issues.

Ahmadinejad, a vehement U.S. critic, will want to highlight to Washington Iran’s close ties with the Iraqi government, led by Shi’ite Muslims, Iran’s dominant religion.

Although Iran wants an Iraqi government with Shi’ites in charge, it is keen to have good ties with all factions. It does not want Iraq to break up, encouraging any separatists at home and leaving Iraqi Shi’ites running a small territory, analysts say.

“The best situation (for Iran) is a central government which is Shi’ite dominated but weak enough so it has to lean on Iran to maintain the power balance inside Iraq,” the diplomat said.

Many Iraqi politicians, mainly Shi’ite and Kurdish, spent years in exile in Iran when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in power. The United States accuses Iran and its Revolutionary Guards of funding, training and equipping Iraqi militias.

Iran denies a role in the violence, which it blames on the presence of U.S. troops, and says it wants a stable neighbor. But analysts say it, nevertheless, sees Iraq as a useful lever.

“They don’t want (Iraq) to get out of control nor do they want it to be too comfortable for the (U.S.-led) coalition,” said Baqer Moin, a London-based Iranian analyst.

Some analysts say Iran may have used its influence with militias to help reduce bloodshed late last year as a concession to Washington when Tehran was worried about a U.S. threat to resort to force to deal with the nuclear row.

Iran and Iraq have already begun talks on trade, energy cooperation and a long-running border row. The rapprochement was made possible by the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein, who launched the 1980-88 war in part because of the border dispute.

Editing by Tim Pearce