Iran's foreign ministry said on Sunday it was summoning Iraq's top diplomat in Tehran over claims that four Iranian spies have been arrested in Baghdad, the latest accusation of Iranian interference in its nieghbour's affairs.

"Today we are going to summon the Iraqi charge d'affaires to the Iranian foreign ministry, and we are going to ask him to give us proof," spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters. He added Iraqi officials should also "stop creating a bad atmosphere" between Iran and Iraq.

On Saturday a spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry said four Iranian intelligence officers had been arrested by Iraqi authorities on suspicion of spying and carrying out acts of sabotage in the country.

Asefi also snubbed a call from Iraq's interim Defence Minister Hazem al-Shaalan, who has been widely lambasted in the Iranian press, that Tehran immediately return Iraqi planes sent to Iran before or during the 1991 Gulf War.

Iranian snub

"We will discuss these (issues) with the coming elected government officials, and not with the interim government," Asefi said in a blunt snub.

Iran has yet to formally recognise the Iraqi interim government, which has been described by Iranian supreme leader Ayat Allah Ali Khamenei as "lackeys" of the Americans.

"We are hopeful that in the future we will not witness such irresponsible comments. The Iraqis should be vigilant. Iraq should not be the place for crisis building"

Hamid Reza Asefi,
Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman

Al-Shaalan said in an interview with the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al-Anbaa that Iran should send back 130 planes "now".

Tehran has insisted that it was holding only 22 Iraqi planes which Saddam Hussein's government sent to Iran to avoid attacks by US-led forces in Kuwait and that it was ready to return them if asked by the United Nations.

Relations have also been complicated by the apparent kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat due to open a consulate in the central Iraqi city of Karbala.

'Sectarian strife'

Iran's charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Ghomi, said Fereydun Jahani disappeared on Wednesday, after a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq announced it had "detained" him for "stirring sectarian strife and for activities outside his diplomatic duties".

Tensions between Iraq and Iran have mounted in recent weeks, after al-Shaalan told The Washington Post he had seen "clear interference in Iraqi issues by Iran", and accused Tehran of taking over some Iraqi border posts and sending spies and saboteurs into Iraq.

Iyad Alawi has yet to visit Tehran

He also alleged that Tehran was working "to kill democracy" in his country.

But Asefi said Iran wanted to hear from Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi "that what the Iraqi defence minister said has been manipulated and it was not like that".

"We are hopeful that in the future we will not witness such irresponsible comments. The Iraqis should be vigilant. Iraq should not be the place for crisis building," Asefi said.

Iran-Iraq war

"We have announced one too many times that we are not interfering in Iraq. We are looking forward to the security and stability of Iraq," he added.

Ties have also been strained over Saddam's trial, with Iran complaining that his alleged use of chemical weapons against the Islamic republic during their 1980-88 war was left off the charge sheet.

Ayat Allah Ali Khamenei has
criticised Iraq's interim leaders

In addition, Iran wants the issue of war reparations to be addressed.

And Tehran has also voiced alarm over the reported presence of Israeli agents in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

Iraq's prime minister has previously announced his intention to visit Iran, but has yet to receive an official invitation. Asefi only said a visit "was on the agenda".

"But we are not going to send a delegation there" to invite him, the spokesman added.