Is Iran looking for change?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti international commentator Ivan Zakharchenko) - Twenty years after a bloody war between Iran and Iraq, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a visit to Baghdad said that it is Iran, not the United States, that is Iraq's true friend.

This event may signal the start of fundamental changes in the region.

Ahmadinedjad and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani gave each other a hug and declared the start of a new era of friendship between the two nations. Incidentally, Iran was one of the first countries to recognize the current Iraqi government after the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.

Under the Iraqi dictator, the government was formed from the representatives of the Sunni minority, whereas after Hussein's downfall, the power went to the Shiites. Iraq and Iran are the only two countries with Shiite governments in the Islamic world. This largely explains their current fraternization.

Moreover, during the Iraqi-Iranian war of 1980-1988, that took a toll of about a million people, many Hussein-suppressed Shiites and Kurds sided with Iran.

Having saved the Iraqis from the former regime and backed the current Iraqi government, Washington considers Iran an enemy - part of the international Axis of Evil on a par with North Korea and Syria.

It is not exactly clear how Baghdad can be friends with Iran without spoiling relations with the United States, but it will obviously have to find a way to maintain the right balance.

Ahmadinejad's arrival in Baghdad last weekend was the first presidential visit since the triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Neither George W. Bush, nor former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been received with such pomp.

This event is a source of concern for the West, although both Iran and Iraq have declared that this visit is devoted exclusively to economic issues. But many analysts and part of the Iraqis are worried that Tehran may spread its political influence to Baghdad. Having lost power in Iraq, the Sunnis have been talking about the export of the Islamic revolution from Iran, while the United States have accused Tehran of training militants for attacks on American troops in Iraq.

It is hard to judge whether these apprehensions are justified. Iran badly needs a strong ally in the region, and neighboring Shiite-ruled Iraq could play this role with its help. Ahmadinejad has already declared Tehran's intention to grant Iraq easy credits to the tune of up to one billion dollars. The two countries are planning to sign about a dozen of oil, energy, and other economic agreements.

With such an ally, Iran is probably hoping to avoid war with the United States and Israel, achieve its strategic goals in the region, and improve relations with other Arab states.

But there is no unity on rapprochement with Iran even among the Iraqis themselves. On the eve of the Iranian President's visit, the press reported actions of protests, primarily in the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq. The protesters believe that Iran is the reason behind Iraq's continued foreign occupation.

At present, the 150,000-strong U.S. military contingent is unable to ensure peace and security in Iraq. Despite accusing Iran of exporting terror to Iraq and developing nuclear weapons, the United States is still hoping to use Iraqi-Iranian connections for normalization. Washington and Tehran are now considering talks at foreign minister level with a view to ending terror in Iraq.

Up to now, Iranian and U.S. ambassadors have had three meetings in Iraq - in May, July, and August of 2007. Analysts are writing that Ahmadinejad has avoided sharp criticism of the United States lately, probably trying to send a signal to Washington. If the United States and Iran come to terms, the situation in the region may change for the better.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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