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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 12:28 GMT
Alarm draws Iran and Iraq closer
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Iraqi and Iranian presidents meet in Tehran
Talabani argued that Iraq's disintegration is in no-one's interest

The Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has been in Iran on a visit aimed at winning Tehran's support for the beleaguered Iraqi government at a time when there are calls for the US to start a dialogue on Iraq with Iran and Syria.

According to the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari their delegation did not carry a message from the Americans.

Rather the message to the Iranian leadership was that the stakes are too high for this government in Baghdad to fail, so start helping us instead of the Shia militia groups and leaders.

Only recently have they [Iraq's neighbours] really grasped the consequences, the dangers of Iraq failing - that there would be a spill over and it's a direct threat to them
Hoshyar Zebari
Iraqi FM

This is how Mr Zebari summed up what he said to the Iranians: "We do expect from you as a friendly neighbouring country to channel all your assistance towards the government - the elected, legitimate constitutional government, instead of diversifying this aid to different groups or different personalities."

Speaking to the BBC Mr Zebari said the Iraqi government had not received the "proper responses" from many of its neighbours, including Iran, although Baghdad had gone out of its way to reach out to them.

"Only recently they have really grasped the consequences, the dangers of Iraq failing - that there would be a spill-over and it's a direct threat to them," he said.

Fear of disintegration

What he means is that if Iraq fails as a state and disintegrates into three separate entities it would be a security nightmare for countries like Iran.

An independent Iraqi Kurdish state would intensify Kurdish nationalism inside Iran while a Sunni state would be implacably opposed to Shia Iran.

And there's the risk Iran could get sucked into sectarian fighting inside Iraq on the side of the Shia while Arab states could back the Sunnis, and Iran would find itself opposed to the rest of the Middle East.

"Understand the strategic significance of what the Iraqi government is facing," is how Mr Zebari put it.

It is not clear what progress was made on the issue of possible US-Iranian talks on Iraq. Iraq would like the two sides to negotiate.

Last March when a suggestion came from a top Iraqi Shia cleric that Washington and Tehran should talk about Iraq, the Iranians welcomed the idea.

Now they believe it didn't happen because the Americans were not keen.

Difficult talks

Iraq's Foreign Minister confirmed there had been a revival of this idea of direct US Iranian talks during his meetings in Tehran.

Iraqis collect family member killed in Iraq
Worsening violence in Iraq may have consequences for its neighbours

"I can't tell you much about that but we detected some willingness to address this issue - but to address other issues also - to look at the situation more comprehensively but also to keep the media away as much as we could," he said, refusing to be drawn further.

Direct talks between the US and Iran do appear fraught with difficulty.

President Bush has linked the issue of Iraq to Iran's nuclear programme. He has repeatedly said that Iran must stop uranium enrichment before talks can start on Iraq.

From the Iranian point of view that smacks of being asked to make a huge concession before being allowed to assist the Americans sort out the mess they have created in Iraq.

And given Iran's adamant refusal to stop its nuclear programme even when presented with trade incentives and threatened with sanctions, the question is why they would change their minds now just to discuss Iraq.

Hardening rhetoric

And the rhetoric has hardened on the Iranian side with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently launching a scathing attack on the failure of British and American policy in the Middle East.

He too ruled out direct talks with Washington unless it changed its attitude first.

But much of the anti American-rhetoric may well be for public consumption.

After Iran's Supreme Leader met the Iraqi president a statement from the Iranians quoted Ayatollah Khamenei saying the first step to restoring calm to Iraq was the withdrawal of foreign forces.

It went on to attack the Americans at length for their role in the chaos in Iraq.

But some reports suggest this is not the tone in which the talks with the Iraqis were actually conducted and this issue of withdrawal was not given such prominence in their meetings.

Rather, there was a growing understanding among the Iranian leadership that the deteriorating situation in Iraq does not benefit Iran.

The argument that Tehran might want to see US troops bogged down in Iraq because that stops them attacking Iran is becoming more and more outdated, replaced by the greater fear that the Iraqi government could fail.

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