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Iran Looks to Increase Influence in Middle East, World Affairs

September 13, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The symbols of Iran’s rising power are everywhere in Tehran, from the capital city’s rapid growth, fueled by surging oil prices, to the military exercises showcased nightly on Iranian TV, to the freeway posters celebrating Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader and longtime Iranian client, Hassan Nasrallah.

Iran enjoys vast oil and gas reserves, and an educated population of 70 million, far larger than any other country in the region. Those advantages have been boosted dramatically by recent external events — ironically, at the hands of the United States, notes University of Tehran political science professor Nasser Hadian.

NASSER HADIAN, Political Science Professor, Tehran University: Thanks to the Americans, I mean, our geopolitical situation is in a very good shape. Two of our enemies have already gone. Not only them already gone — there are friendly governments there.

MARGARET WARNER: A reference to the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan, which toppled the hostile Taliban, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which deposed Iran’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein, and led to the election of a government dominated by fellow Shiites.

The latest boost to Iran’s fortunes came from what’s widely seen here as a major Hezbollah victory over Israel in Lebanon. Iran’s decades of funding and arming the militant group paid off. In the mosques and streets of Tehran, Hezbollah’s performance is a source of tremendous pride.

You could hear the triumphant tone at a recent gathering for Friday prayers, where one of the leading clerics in government, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, crowed about what he said was a victory for Iran and for Shiite power.

AYATOLLAH AHMAD JANATI, Secretary, Guardian Council (through translator): The credibility of Israel and America was shattered, although they never really had any. The Americans threw their support behind the Israelis. And, in the end, they were defeated by Hezbollah.

MARGARET WARNER: You could hear the same pride in the departing crowd.

MAN (through translator): With all the military gear that America was supplying to Israel, the defeat that Israel suffered was in fact a defeat for the United States as well. It showed its weakness, too.

Building a larger regional role

Nasser Hadian
Tehran University
We are playing a regional role, but is it appropriate for us? Isn't it a costly scenario for us to play a regional role?

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, there's a real debate within Iranian circles over whether Iran should take on regional responsibilities.

NASSER HADIAN: We are playing a regional role, but is it appropriate for us? Isn't it a costly scenario for us to play a regional role?

MARGARET WARNER: So, why is it even a debate?

NASSER HADIAN: Why there is a debate? Because of the cost, because some of us who are arguing that we maybe don't have the capacity, the capability to play the regional role, and it is not appropriate for us to play a regional role.

MARGARET WARNER: There's certainly a political cost to be paid for a higher regional profile. Iran's role in aiding Hezbollah gave President Bush another reason to warn against Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: This summer's crisis in Lebanon has made it clearer than ever that the world now faces a grave threat from the radical regime in Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: There are financial costs as well. Just days after the cease-fire, Hezbollah members were handing out American dollars to Lebanese families who had lost their homes, dollars reportedly furnished by Iran out of oil revenues.

Yet, Iran has its own economic pressures at home. Despite the oil windfall, its state-controlled economy is struggling, and more and more middle-class Tehranis need to work two jobs to make ends meet.

At the offices of the reformist newspaper Shargh, which was shut down by the government this week, we heard criticism of President Ahmadinejad for failing to make good on last year's campaign promises.

Director Mohammad Atrianfar:

MOHAMMAD ATRIANFAR, Publisher, Shargh Newspaper (through translator): After one year of governing Iran, he has produced no results for the Iranian nation. The economy is unstable. Slogans are created, and, the next day, they are forgotten. Inflation and high prices are worrying people; yet, at the same time, there is a tremendous income from oil.

MARGARET WARNER: Hadian says Iran just doesn't have the capability yet to shoulder the burdens of being a major regional power.

NASSER HADIAN: We need to have a much larger economy, a more productive economy, a much more efficient armed forces and army, more prestige, basically, in the world and in the region. Then, we will be in a situation that we can play, if we decide, a regional role.

MARGARET WARNER: But, despite the costs, the lure of a high-profile role in opposition to the U.S., seems irresistible to President Ahmadinejad.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iranian President (through translator): I suggest holding a live TV debate with Mr. George W. Bush to talk about world affairs and the ways to solve those issues.

Using Iran's weight in the Mideast

Trita Parsi
Middle East Analyst
They want to bridge the Shiite-Sunni divide. They want to bridge the Persian-Arab divide. And they're using pan-Islamism as a means towards that.

MARGARET WARNER: The question is, what does a newly ascendant Iran want to do with its growing influence? And what does that mean for its relationship with the United States?

It seems to have emboldened Iraq in its pursuit of nuclear technology and self-sufficiency. And with Russia and China invested in Iran's energy industry, and Europeans deep into the consumer market here, hard-line newspaper editor Hossein Shariatmadari says, Tehran is increasingly confident it can fend off painful sanctions.

HOSSEIN SHARIATMADARI, Editor, Kayhan Newspaper (through translator): Anyone who confronts us confronts the Islamic world. If Russia and China want to go along with this resolution, they would definitely not have a place in this region. That's why they're dragging their feet.

In addition, the interests of the Europeans are different from the interests of the United States. The Americans have already sanctioned us. So, it's the Europeans who would have to impose sanctions, and they're not willing to accept that loss.

MARGARET WARNER: There's something else in play. As a Persian, not Arab, country, led by Shiites, not Sunnis, Iran has long been odd man out in the neighborhood.

Now, with the Mideast roiling, it sees the chance to use its oil wealth and a pan-Islamic message to spread its influence through its ties with radical Islamic movements in the region, not just Hezbollah, but also the Palestinian group Hamas and Shiite militias seen here in Iraq.

Iranian-born Mideast expert Trita Parsi.

TRITA PARSI, Middle East Analyst: The Iranians are trying to empower the Shiites throughout the region, who historically have been in a disadvantaged position. But I think it's largely part of a means towards a greater goal. They want to bridge the Shiite-Sunni divide. They want to bridge the Persian-Arab divide. And they're using pan-Islamism as a means towards that.

MARGARET WARNER: Ahmadinejad's harsh anti-Israel rhetoric is another part of that strategy, Parsi says.

TRITA PARSI: They're also playing on the pride of the people of the Middle East, who have hurt pride because they feel they have been defeated by the West, defeated by Israel, that their own regimes do not have the power and the courage to be able to stand up for Palestinian rights.

And then comes Iran, not even an Arab country, and it does all of these things, at a time when the Arab regimes are becoming increasingly disinclined to be able to challenge the U.S. And that's winning Iran a lot of credibility on the Arab streets.

MARGARET WARNER: There's debate over whether Iran's clerical leadership wants to foster copycat revolutions nearby to topple U.S.-allied Arab governments.

Newspaper editor Shariatmadari, who meets weekly with Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, says, Iran does seek to export its revolution.

HOSSEIN SHARIATMADARI (through translator): It's natural, because they realize that all these movements trace their roots back to the Iranian revolution. I think that Egypt is pregnant with big events. I hope so.

A game of hardball with the U.S.

Mohammad Atrianfar
Shargh Newspaper
What are Iran's strengths? Are they political? No. Are they scientific? No. The only advantage Iran has is the geopolitical position it enjoys, which is why it emphasizes that. And where can this advantage can be found? In power.

MARGARET WARNER: The opposite view holds that Iran's dependence on oil export revenues gives it a greater interest in regional stability. In fact, it is the U.S., not Iran, that's now pushing for radical change in the region, says Professor Hadian.

NASSER HADIAN: We would like basically to preserve the status quo. This is America, who wants to change the status quo. America wants to democratize the region. But that's basically a recipe for a kind of change which no one knows what would be the end result of such a kind of changes. Thus, America is a revolutionary force now, and Iran is very much a status quo power.

GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these...

MARGARET WARNER: Fear that it could be the next target of President Bush's democracy agenda, ever since he labeled Iran part of an axis of evil, also helps explain Iranian behavior in the region, says newspaperman Atrianfar.

MOHAMMAD ATRIANFAR (through translator): Since the U.S. brought up this axis of evil slogan and talked about regime change in Iran, namely, the toppling of the present government, it meant that they are trying to play with our destiny.

Under those conditions, any country would play to its strengths. What are Iran's strengths? Are they political? No. Are they scientific? No. The only advantage Iran has is the geopolitical position it enjoys, which is why it emphasizes that. And where can this advantage can be found? In power.

MARGARET WARNER: Power, notes Trita Parsi, that Iran is using to play a double game in neighboring Iraq -- supporting the government, but also Shiite militias contributing to the violence.

TRITA PARSI: They want to have a little bit of chaos, in order to ensure that the United States is a little bit bogged down, and can't exercise a military option against Iran. And, on the other hand, they don't want things to go out of control, because that would be equally detrimental to them. It could lead to a civil war. And a civil war would be disastrous for Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran's aging revolutionaries haven't abandoned the anti-U.S. rhetoric that marked the hostage crisis at the former U.S. Embassy here 27 years ago. But observers say, what Tehran craves above all is respect and recognition from the United States.

TRITA PARSI: The Iranians do have a particular need to be able to feel that they are being respected, that they don't want to be talked down on, that they don't want to be treated as if they're a nobody state, and the United States is holding all the cards, and is dictating what it should or shouldn't do.

NASSER HADIAN: If I want to just have one phrase to characterize what they want, is full normalization, Iran not to be considered as abnormal a state, but, rather, as a normal state. We may have our differences. We may have our disputes, but, still, we would look at each other as a normal state.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, for now, the Iranian government seems to believe the way to win that respect is by playing hardball.