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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 15:16 GMT
Iran and US brought closer over Iraq
Veiled women in Tehran
The meeting of the Iraqi opposition, which we previewed is still going on in London. The wrangling over who might get what if and when Saddam Hussein is toppled by the Americans drags on. And on.

But the implications of so-called regime change go beyond Iraq.

Iran, which George Bush called part of the 'axis of evil', has already fought a hugely costly war with Saddam Hussein. And it harbours on its soil many bitter opponents of the Iraqi regime.

Sue Lloyd Roberts has been examining what regime change in Iraq could mean for its neighbour

SUE LLOYD-ROBERTS:
They don't have anti-American demonstrations like they used to in Iran. Only a few thousand marched down the streets for the latest. A disappointing turnout for the mullahs. Not like the good old days when students stormed the American Embassy in 1979, held 52 diplomats hostage for 15 months and America was universally agreed to be "the great Satan."

Still, some veterans of those days can sing from the old song sheet. She shouts, "Death to Israel. Death to America. Death to Britain." repeatedly, and concludes for good measure, "Death to all Western powers."

"Death to America" has been the rallying cry, here in Iran for the past two decades. But sharing with America, the status of most hated nation is the country's neighbouring Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But with Washington, now supporting regime change in Baghdad, the government here has to contemplate the wisdom of "you are enemy's enemy is your friend" even if that unlikely friend is the United States. But if Iranian mullahs are thinking along these lines they're not making it public.

At Friday's prayers, the former president gives another version of a sermon he was telling 20 years ago, telling the public that the Christians and the Jews are still conspiring against Muslims and Iran. And yet the Iranian government co-operated with America in the campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. And later it obliged by rounding up Al-Qaeda suspects, including Osama Bin Laden's son, as they attempted to flee from Iran back to Afghanistan.

But any lasting rapprochement between the two countries was scuppered, according to Mrs Koulayi, who is on the government foreign affairs committee, when President Bush announced that Iran was part of his axis of evil.

You must admit there would be an interest if it were directed against Saddam Hussein?

ELAHE KOULAYI:
There would be common interests in this respect between Iranian people and American people with respect to the terrorist attacks on them. The American government and the American state must consider the impact of the antagonistic policies against us. They must change these attitudes.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
So you are waiting for an olive branch from America?

KOULAYI:
Yes.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
Behind the scenes we hear a different story, that Iran is committed to active neutrality. If the United Nations sanctions war against Iraq, then Iranian air space would be made available and if US pilots are shot down they will be helped. Should Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons, Allied troops could end up Iranian hospitals. Tens of thousands of Iranians were affected by chemicals during the eight year Iran-Iraqi war, and Iranian medics are considered the experts.

And then there's the support that Ayatollah Khamenei gives to the Iraqi refugees and opposition groups who all have offices in Tehran. He set up the so-called Victory committee which regularly meets to discuss military preparations. Iran, where the majority of people are Shias, would welcome a Shia government in neighbouring Iraq.

Here, Iraqi exiles in a mosque Tehran mourn the death of a 7th century Imam Ali. This is just one of the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Imam Ali is not revered by the Sunnis who are a minority in Iraq, but make up the ruling class there. The antagonisms between the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq, have led to an estimated one million seeking refuge in Iran over the past two decades, but many don't have work and live in proverty. You might think they would be pleased at the prospect of America toppling Saddam Hussein and of returning home. But here too, old attitudes die hard.

TRANSLATION:
UNNAMED MAN 1:

No, no way are we going to support the United States or Britain. The policies of these countries are based on their need for oil and their oppression to Islam. They do not want to help the Iraqis.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
But if America wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein, why don't you back them?

TRANSLATION:
UNNAMED MAN 2:

Why, why does America back Israel. Israel is destroying the Palestinian nation. America should first get rid of Israel and then Saddam Hussein.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
But their leaders tend to be more pragmatic. Chief negotiator for the Shias, Ayatollah Aziz Hakim, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is in regular communication with the American administration.

You do make strange allies, you and the Americans. You a religious leader, the descendant of the prophet, and George Bush who said last year that he was going to declare a crusade?

AYATOLLAH AZIZ HAKIM:
TRANSLATION:

I am not sorry that I went to America or met with the Americans. I feel a historical and moral responsibility to protect the Iraqi people, and therefore I have to do what I can by meeting all the people and powers that could help, or have an effect on my people.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
The Iraqi Shias have an impressive army which trains in Iran. It includes survivors of the 1991 Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein, which failed, they say, because of the premature withdrawal of American support. They don't advertise how big this army is. It's rumoured to be about 15,000. Will these men now fight alongside American and British soldiers?

HAKIM:
The number you mention is much less than the real number. We have military forces in Iran, northern Iraq and also inside Iraq. Additionally, there are massive numbers of mujahideen fighters throughout Iraq, so the real number is much greater. It is the duty of these forces to do whatever they must to protect the Iraqi people and to remove the current regime.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
Do you trust the Americans? After all, they let you down in 1991.

HAKIM:
America is now seriously determined to change the regime. We think that, this time, the conditions will be favourable for the Iraqi people to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
I next, called on the Kurds, although Iran has its own problem with Kurdish separatists. Iraqi Kurds are the enemies of Saddam Hussein, and so they, too, are welcome in Tehran.

Dana Saswar is a refreshing change. He invited me to take off my headscarf and, unusually for Iran, he laughs a lot. This, he says, is how the man the Kurds despise moves his weapons away from the inspectors.

DANA SASWAR:
TRANSLATION:

What Saddam Hussein did in the Iran-Iraq war and the use of chemical weapons, the mass killings of the Kurds, not to mention the prisoners of war and the disappeared, all of these things have all brought the Kurds closer to Iran. The Islamic Republic has always supported the unity of the Iraqi opposition and continues to do so.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
Take a hypothetical situation, early next year, say American troops with perhaps British support have knocked out the military installations in Baghdad. Would the Kurdish troops in the north be prepared to move south to help the regime change effort?

SASWAR:
We have a big army, and have amassed large forces to defend Kurdistan, its people and its democratic federal government. As in the past, we have suffered much. But the US Government has its own plans which they haven't informed us of. Neither have they asked for our support during or after the attack. However, if they did ask us for support, then that would be a different matter.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
But there are those in Iran who believe that war in neighbouring Iraq could produce more than the mullahs bargain for. Demonstrations by students and an increasingly frustrated people have taken place regularly in recent weeks. There's widespread disillusionment within the Islamic Republic. There have been calls for the mullahs to release their grip and for a referendum and for the introduction of a secular government. Even more worrying for the Iranian Government, a recent poll suggested that 75% of those asked were in favour of closer links with America. The man who organised the poll is now in prison.

Amir Kavian is an opposition journalist and spokesman.

AMIR KAVIAN:
TRANSLATION:

If you speak with different sectors of the population, each one of them is fed up either because of financial difficulties, professional difficulties or because they are beset by political problems. I believe that the country is sitting on a time bomb.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
Could war in Iraq be the detonator?

KAVIAN:
After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, ordinary Iranians were full of envy. You can be sure that a regime change in Iraq would have a similar impact. I believe that the Iranian people will rejoice for any country that successfully frees itself from autocracy, and that their determination is strengthened to achieve the same result here.

LLOYD-ROBERTS:
For Iran, war could mean instability within, and will almost certainly entail a humanitarian crisis. Impoverished Iraqis living in Tehran already receive food handouts. There are still over 200,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran from previous conflicts, living in camps on the border. The Iran government is currently preparing for many more.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Newsnight's Sue Lloyd Roberts
looked at Shi'ites who are campaigning for regime change in Iraq.
See also:

10 Dec 02 | Middle East
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