As the United States and Iran are locked in a battle for power and influence across the Middle East -- with the fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon looming in the background -- FRONTLINE gains unprecedented access to Iranian hard-liners shaping government policy, including parliament leader Hamid Reza Hajibabaei, National Security Council member Mohammad Jafari and state newspaper editor Hossein Shariatmadari.
In this report that focuses on the tumultuous U.S.-Iran relations since 9/11, FRONTLINE examines how U.S. efforts to install democracy in Iraq have served to strengthen Iran's position as an emerging power in the Middle East.
"You will not find a single instance in which a country has inflicted harm on us and we have left it without a response. So if the United States makes such a mistake, they should know that we will definitely respond. And we don't make idle threats," Mohammad Jafari tells FRONTLINE in his first-ever television interview.
There are increasing signs that the Bush administration is considering military action before it leaves office if Tehran continues to defy U.N. demands that it cease enriching uranium for its nuclear program -- a program the Iranians insist is for peaceful purposes. "The president has said repeatedly that it is unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons," former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton tells FRONTLINE. "If action is not taken in terms of regime change or, if need be, the use of military force, the question of when Iran achieves nuclear weapons is entirely in Iran's own hands. And that is extraordinarily undesirable."
But Richard Armitage, President Bush's former deputy secretary of state, warns, "It would be the worst of worlds for an outgoing administration to start a conflict."
After 9/11, the Bush administration hoped to drive a wedge between Iran's people and their Islamic rulers by installing democracies on two of Iran's borders. "If things had gone better in Iraq," says Hillary Mann, the Iran expert at the National Security Council during the run-up to the war, "then yeah, I think Iran was next."
"I think Iran is more secure now, courtesy of the United States," Bolton says. "We have removed the Taliban regime from Afghanistan, which they viewed as a mortal threat. We have removed Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which they viewed as a mortal threat."
Before invading Iraq, the Bush administration rebuffed a series of overtures from Iran's reformist government -- among them offers to help the U.S. stabilize Iraq after the invasion. After the invasion a strange fax arrived in Washington. It was a secret proposal for a grand bargain resolving all outstanding issues between the U.S. and Iran, including Iran's support for terrorism and its nuclear program. But opinions differed on how serious the offer was. The State Department thought the reformists were politically weak and promising more than they could deliver. And the White House, newly victorious in Iraq, saw no need to negotiate with Iran. The "grand bargain" fax never received a reply.
Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, believes the Bush administration's confrontational approach discredited Iran's reformists and inadvertently helped bring the new hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. "The wars of 2001 and 2003 have fundamentally changed the Middle East to Iran's advantage," he says. "The dam that was containing Iran has been broken."
Update, Oct. 25, 2007: On Oct. 25, 2007, the Bush administration announced new unilateral sanctions against Iran. Most notably, the administration named Iran's Revolutionary Guard and its Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics "entitites of proliferation concern" regarding weapons of mass destruction. It also targeted the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force for "providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations." Washington Post writer and longtime Iran observer Robin Wright called the sanctions "the broadest set of punitive measures imposed on Tehran since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy" and "the first time the United States has tried to isolate or punish another country's military."