Sunday, March 29, 2009

Iran's Renewed Border Dispute With Iraq Threatens to Hinder U.S. Efforts


BAGHDAD -- Iranian officials have resurrected a decades-old sea-border dispute with Iraq, raising tensions that could become a stumbling block to Washington's recent outreach to Tehran.

The spat -- over territory through which most of Iraq's oil exports pass -- is part of a diplomatic chill from Tehran that Iraqi officials say began this year because of Baghdad's pact with Washington that formalized the U.S. troop presence. Hostilities between Iran and Iraq, including a war through most of the 1980s, have been a major obstacle to regional stability.
[Iran, Iraq Border Dispute Map]

Mr. Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Baghdad, Christopher Hill, told lawmakers in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs is "the real problem in the region for Iraq."

The U.S. says Iran continues to fund extremist militias battling American and Iraqi troops in Iraq. Iran has denied this. The U.S. military said this month that it shot down an Iranian military drone inside Iraqi airspace on Feb. 25.

There has been speculation that the drone was in Iraq to monitor more than 3,000 Iranian dissidents living at Camp Ashraf, about 90 miles northeast of Baghdad. As part of Iraq's security pact with the U.S., the Iraqi government took control of the camp from coalition forces this year and is looking for other countries to accept the dissidents, known as the People's Mujahadeen of Iran, or PMOI.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran's influence in Iraq climbed as politicians who enjoyed support from Tehran while in exile during Mr. Hussein's rule took power. Diplomatic and trade missions blossomed.

But ties have cooled again, according to Iraqi officials. In recent months, Tehran has sent at least three letters to Iraq about the sea border, stating that Iraq's two oil-export terminals in the Shattal al-Arab waterways leading to the Persian Gulf are located in Iranian waters, Iraqi officials say. Most of Iraq's vital oil exports pass through the terminals.

The border dispute re-emerged after it became clear Baghdad would sign a bilateral security pact with Washington late last year. Tehran opposed the deal, although the agreement lays out a timeline for an eventual withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.

"Iran is not happy because the security agreement showed we have a strong relationship with the U.S.," says Iraqi lawmaker Sami al-Askary, a confidant of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "Things are shaky between Iraq and Iran now," he says.

Iran may also be feeling it has lost some influence after local elections this year in which Mr. Maliki's more secular slate performed much better than the country's religious parties. In particular, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, seen as closely allied to Iran, lost seats on many local councils.

Border disputes between the two neighbors helped trigger the Iran-Iraq War.

"There are some people who are trying to create problems between the two countries," says Mohammed al-Haj Humood, a senior official at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He blames more radical elements in Iran's diffuse power circles for the falling out. "We are trying our best to stop this provocation."

Mr. Humood says two bilateral subcommittees formed to work on border issues are to begin work next month. Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hasan Kazemi Qomi, played down the border dispute, telling reporters this month there was no disagreement between the two sides.

On Friday, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said the residents of Camp Ashraf must leave Iraq because they are considered a terrorist organization. They have been a source of friction between Iraq and Iran, which also wants the dissidents to be expelled from Iraq.

Write to Gina Chon at

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