By Farah Stockman
WASHINGTON - Before the US military marched to Baghdad to take out Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqi and Iranian exiles warned the US government of an unintended consequence the coming war in Iraq could bring: the rise of Iran.
They argued that the US-led war in Afghanistan had already eliminated Iran's enemy to the east, the Taliban, whose brand of Islam was hostile to Iran's Shi'ite faith.
A second US-led war in Iraq would eliminate Iran's enemy to the west, Hussein, who had launched a bitter, eight-year war against Iran.
Now, true to those predictions, Iran -- a country President Bush declared a member of the ''axis of evil," along with North Korea and Hussein's Iraq -- is exerting unprecedented influence in the Middle East, defying the international community over its nuclear program and providing funding and personnel for Shi'ite political parties in Iraq.
Despite the warnings, some US officials involved in formulating Iraq policy now count the failure to limit Iranian influence as one of the major deficiencies of postwar planning in Iraq.
''Iran has the potential of playing a helpful role [in Iraq">, but we are uneasy about some of the actions that Iran has been taking," particularly in the southern region, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters last week in Baghdad.
Concern in Washington and Baghdad is mounting as Iraq's fledgling government takes its first steps toward democracy.
''Iranian intrusion has been vast and unprecedented since the establishment of the Iraqi state," Iraq's new defense minister, Hazim al-Shalaan told the London-based Arab language newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, accusing Iran of sending spies to ''shake up" the political landscape in Iraq.
''The Bush administration has to face the reality that Iran is now the regional superpower," said Mohammed Hadi Semati, an Iranian political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a liberal Washington-based think tank.
Pressure to decide how to deal with Iran's new influence mounted last month when the Sept. 11 report said that as many as 10 hijackers were given safe passage through Iran. And Saturday, Iran heightened tension over the nuclear issue by vowing not to give up its uranium-enrichment program and confirming that it had restarted building centrifuges for that purpose.
Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and has denied meddling in Iraq's affairs.
Recently, Iran tried to foster good will with Iraq's new government by offering to host eight-nation talks about how to better protect Iraq's borders from infiltration by foreign fighters.
But Iranian opposition groups say that offer comes after thousands of mullahs, informants, agents, and Revolutionary Guards have already crossed the 900-mile border into Iraq, sometimes under the guise of Shi'ite pilgrims.
''Members of the Iranian opposition warned repeatedly of the dangers of fundamentalists coming from Iran," said Ali Safavi, a former member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an opposition group with strong ties to militants. ''In the chaos following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the border was left unguarded, and tens of thousands entered Iraq. . . . I think the US could have sealed the Iranian border and prevented them from setting up shop in Iraq."
Iranian influence has been an obstacle to planning the national conference to select advisers to Iraq's interim government, according to Sadiq Mussawi, one of the conference organizers.
The conference had been scheduled for last Saturday but was postponed because of disagreements over the process of choosing delegates.
Mussawi said that, in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, the fact that several Iranian ayatollahs hold sway over different sections of the population made it difficult to choose the delegates in democratic elections.
''There are powerful hands working over there, and the governor is weak. The police force is divided between the offices of the ayatollahs," Mussawi said. ''The policemen have political loyalty to those offices, and that destroys any democratic process."
He said the strongest political current in Nasiriyah is led by those who advocate an Islamic state like the one in Iran.
US officials call the possible election of an Iranian-style theocratic government in Iraq ''the nightmare scenario," but say they believe the chances of it are remote.
Still, Iran's ties to the new Iraq run deep, and there is little doubt that Iraq's Shi'ite majority will do well at the ballot box and maintain close links to their powerful Shi'ite neighbor.
Iraq's popular SCIRI party -- or Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- was formed in Iran in the 1980s during Hussein's persecution of Iraqi Shi'ites. Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of SCIRI, has received funding from Iran and met several times with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some Iran specialists in Washington say the new political realities in the region will force Iran and the United States to work toward friendlier relations based on newfound common interests, like stability in Iraq.
But Iranian exiles, longtime enemies of Tehran, say the situation can only get worse. Safavi and his colleagues have been compiling and circulating a list of what they call Iran's transgressions, including allegations that proxy groups control much of southern Iraq and that translators working for the US military also serve as informants for Iran.
''It is safe to say that the number one beneficiary of the Iraq war unwittingly was the fundamentalist regime in Iran," said Safavi. ''It goes without saying that if, in fact, the Iranian clerics succeed in their plan, the whole region will be in a lot of trouble because you would have not one, but two fundamentalist regimes."