BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a scathing complaint about Washington’s longtime nemesis, the top U.S. diplomat here on Monday accused Iran of fomenting trouble in Iraq’s southern provinces by calling for the withdrawal of British troops.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad suggested that Iran was focusing attention on Iraq in an attempt to distract the international community from Tehran’s nuclear program.
“It may be … that the nuclear issue is getting more serious and difficult for Iran, (and) they’re trying to divert attention from that issue by getting themselves involved in things that are frankly none of their business,” Khalilzad told reporters during a briefing in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. “I think their role has taken a negative turn.”
Khalilzad accused Iran of providing weapons and training to militias in Iraq even as it labors to build friendly diplomatic relations with the government in Baghdad, which like the leadership in Tehran is now dominated by Shiite Muslims. Iran’s double-edged policy is meant to nurture its goals of turning itself into a regional power, Khalilzad charged.
The ambassador’s remarks were unusually sharp. In the past, American diplomats in Baghdad have generally avoided overt, public criticisms of Iran. Instead, they have stuck to vague grumblings about “neighboring countries” and insisted that they do not expect Baghdad to replicate the frosty U.S. relations with Iran.
But on Monday, the ambassador seemed primed to criticize Iran. A reporter asked about the Islamic Republic after U.S. Embassy staff prodded journalists to raise the issue during a news conference given by Khalilzad.
“They’re using a variety of tools that to you and I would look very contradictory but to them is part of a comprehensive strategy,” Khalilzad said of Iranian officials. “We are increasingly worried about the role Iran is playing. I have said to Iraqis that we do not want to impose our relationship to Iran on them. But the latest interference of Iran has raised some issues.”
The harsher rhetoric comes as a standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions continues to escalate between Tehran and the West. Iran has asserted its right to nuclear technology, insisting its goal is to produce power for civilian use. In the process, it has flirted with sanctions from an international community that fears Tehran wants to build a bomb. Iranian negotiators are in Moscow this week for talks on a proposal to jointly enrich uranium on Russian soil as a way of easing those concerns.
The ambassador’s remarks also came amid a war of words over the role of British troops in the southern city of Basra. A heavily Shiite Muslim city, Basra has close and ancient ties to the Shiite clerics who rule neighboring Iran. When video came to light this month showing British soldiers beating and kicking Iraqis in Basra, an incensed Iran called upon British troops to withdraw from Iraq’s south.
“We believe that the presence of the British military forces in Basra destabilized the security situation and had negative effects,” Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said during a visit to Beirut last week. “Iran calls for an immediate withdrawal of the British forces from Basra.”