BAGHDAD — Iran would like to see a strong and stable Iraq and isn't likely to be concerned about which country trains the Iraqi armed forces, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq told McClatchy.
A senior U.S. military official said Thursday that this could represent a "significant change" in Iran's attitude toward Iraq and the possibility that American trainers will stay on after Dec. 31, when all U.S. troops are due to depart Iraq.
The American military's chief spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, said the Iranian view "sounds rational." If Iran's behavior matches its words and is part of a broader strategy, it "would be a significant change ... a welcome change," he said.
The Iranian ambassador, Hassan Danaei Far, laid out his views on Sept. 21, when he was asked whether Iran could accept the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq if they stayed on in a training capacity and if the end result was a strong and stable Iraq.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
In view of their long common border, and populations with long-standing religious, cultural and economic links, if either country is strong and powerful "that is to the advantage and benefit of the other, that is not against them," Far said. "A powerful, well-trained armed force in Iraq, which can manage to safeguard its border and security, is most welcome," he said.
Who does the training is a separate matter, Far said.
"That really doesn't sound (like) an issue for us. What we really want is to have an Iraqi army which can cope with the problems of its relations, as it has been successfully doing so far in the (internal) problems at hand."
Iraqi, as well as U.S., officials said they were pleased — and surprised — to hear the Iranian diplomat's perspective. The late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched a war against the clerical regime in Iran in 1980 that ended in 1988, at a cost of at least half a million lives on both sides.
Iran welcomed the overthrow of Saddam during the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but it's been implacably opposed to the American troop presence up to now. U.S. officials have charged that Iran has supported and sponsored Shiite Muslim militias that have attacked American forces and Iraqi civilians.
Buchanan said Iran's policy "over the years" had been "significantly different" from the attitude Far had articulated. Previously, it had been "to keep Iraq weak and isolated; isolated from the United States, and just as important, isolated from all of its neighbors."
He said Iran had been "very consistent, employing everything from militant groups and ... violent proxies to economic policies and political policies that reinforce the means of keeping Iraq weak and isolated."
Buchanan said the United States recognized that the two countries must relate to each other: "What we hope is that it's a positive relationship, and one that's based on mutual respect. ... So those comments sound exactly like what we would like to see."
However, he added: "Again, behavior counts for more than words. "
An Iraqi government spokesman said Far's words were likely to meet with skepticism, particularly in the United States.
"Maybe I didn't know their view until now," Tahseen al Shaikhli said of Far's position. "We have to respect his words," he added. "I don't think the people in the United States will believe you. Did you record it, document it?"
This summer, the U.S. charged that several insurgent groups linked to Iran had stepped up a lethal campaign against American forces, using projectile weapons that almost certainly came from Iran. After U.S. and Iraqi forces mounted operations in Maysan province in southeastern Iraq, as well as in Basra and Baghdad, the campaign diminished.
Buchanan said the military operations disrupted the flow of munitions and resulted in the arrests of leadership, but political discussions between Iraq and Iran also played a role.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY