Showdown With IranFRONTLINE
  • home
  • interviews
  • analysis
  • site map
  • discussion
  • watch online

The Roots of Iran's New Confidence

An overview of the elements of Iran's history and the turn of events since 9/11 that help explain why it sees itself as the most important player today in the Middle East.

Patrick Clawson
Deputy director of research, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

... We Americans tend to think of Iran as a medium-sized country that excels at being a problem, whereas the Iranians point out that they are, in fact, a great and ancient civilization. All these recent movies about the ancient Greeks -- who is it that they're fighting? It's the Persians.

So this is a civilization that's been around a long time and has produced a lot of great art, great literature and especially a very proud people.

How do they see their position culturally, politically and historically within the broader Middle East?

The broader Middle East for about a thousand years has had three great cultures: the Persian, by far and away the oldest, then the Arab and, starting about a thousand years ago, the Turks appear on the scene. And those really are very distinctive civilizations. At every level of personal life as well as language these are different, real different. ...

If you visit ... the Taj Mahal, all the inscriptions on it are in Persian. When the British arrived in Bangladesh the court system was in Persian. When the great Greek civilization of antiquity existed they were fighting against the Persians who, at the time, ruled Egypt. That gives you some idea of the scope of Persia throughout most of the last 2,500 years. And even 200 years ago, Iran was twice its present size. So for Iranians this is just a bad century where their country is artificially shrunk to a mere fraction of its normal size.

And how is that sense of history relevant in practical political terms?

In practical political terms, Iran just assumes that it is the natural leader of the region to which countries ... would just naturally look to Iran for leadership, in the eyes of many Iranians.

How does that go down with the people [of the region]? ...

The people of the former Soviet Union are a little sick and tired of someone treating them like a little brother; that's how the Russians treated them, after all. And the oil-rich Arabs think that they're doing very nicely, thank you. A place like Dubai is booming and popping, compared to which Iran has been pretty stagnant. So they don't think they've got anything to learn from the Iranians.

And culturally and religiously, what's the difference between the religions in Iran versus the Gulf states?

The Shi'ite character of Iran certainly adds a religious element to this sense of not only distinctiveness but indeed superiority, but frankly that attitude was there a thousand years before Shi'ism showed up. ...

... What are the U.S. allies in the region, the Saudis and the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, saying privately to U.S. officials about Iran? Are they worried?

The message from the Saudis and other U.S. allies in the region is Iran's a big problem. We, the Arab states, are too small and vulnerable to deal with this problem. You have to deal with this problem, the United States. And, by the way, we Arabs don't trust your judgment.

Why not?

... Because we haven't done so well in Iraq, and because we don't necessarily consult with them about these sorts of issues. Let's face it, the Iran nuclear issue has been dealt with by the Europeans, the Russians, the Americans, but we haven't exactly run to the Arabs and asked their opinion about these matters. ...

Nicholas Burns
U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs

photo of Burns

You've called Iran a generational challenge for the U.S. What did you mean by that?

I think Iran is a generational challenge to the United States in this respect: Iran is a revolutionary power; it's a rising power in the Middle East; it has a big sense of itself; it wants to become the dominant military power in the Middle East; it's trying to achieve a nuclear weapons capability; and it's also funding and arming nearly all the Middle East terrorist groups that are making life difficult for the United States and for the modern Arab countries in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan.

The balance of power in the Middle East is very important to the United States. It's the one area of the world where our most vital interests are now engaged. It is, for our century, what Europe was for the last century in that respect. Therefore the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran funding and arming all the terrorist groups in the Middle East is one that's directly contrary to U.S. interests. So we will have to deal with this problem of Iran for a long time to come. We've got to be very tough minded and successful in dealing with it. ...

... What are their objectives?

I suppose Iranian objectives are to strengthen their country's position in the Middle East, to become a dominant military power over the moderate Arab states -- which, of course, we are resolutely opposed to. And their interests are to seek the kind of domination, if you will, that a nuclear weapons capability and a stronger conventional capability would give them vis-à-vis their neighbors. ...

Do you think that the objectives you outlined are coming out of the revolutionary mentality, or are they part of Iranian nationalism that any government in Tehran would pursue?

I do think that a feature of Iran that needs to be appreciated here in America is that it is an intensely proud and nationalistic country. They have a very long history; it's a great nation with a great history. And so we need to understand that about Iran.

But on the other hand, I think there is a resurgence of revolutionary zeal in [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the people around him. And it's been this reassertion of Iranian, not just nationalism but revolutionary spirit, which has caused so many problems and has caused so many countries to say that they distrust the direction in which Iran is heading.

This is not just a concern that we have in the United States or that Israel has. All of the modern Arab countries, particularly those along the Persian Gulf, are very concerned about this new more negative, more violent spirit in Iran. ...

Hossein Shariatmadari
Editor, Kayhan newspaper, Iran

photo of Shariatmadari

... Islamic movements in the region are getting closer to one another; the various dots are beginning to form one line. After the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran [1979], the Palestinian movement, instead of following their cause through the corridors of the United Nations, resorted to an intifada instead. They were inspired by the Islamic Revolution. The Islamic Revolution was an example for Hezbollah in Lebanon to follow, and thanks to our model, Hezbollah's been transformed into a major force across the region.

You can see the same thing in Iraq. Mr. Bush wanted to put in place a pro-American government, but the government in power now and voted by the people of Iraq is an Islamist one. Today we see several widespread movements in Saudi Arabia; the Saudis are trying to cover them up. The same kind of movement, in another form, is taking place in Jordan and Egypt. ... I think the powerful Islamic pole has emerged, and in the near future this powerful pole will show itself effectively. ...

... What's Iran's role in [this change]?

Iran set an example with its Islamic Revolution, and this example manifested its success. In following [late Supreme Leader] Imam Khomeini, God Bless Him, we bare-handedly overthrew the pro-American regime of the shah. We then established the government we wanted based on the people's vote. ... And the imposition of an eight-year war [between Iran and Iraq] -- bombarding cities with bombs and missiles, the use of chemical weapons, tanker wars [between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the Persian Gulf], and tens of other incidents. During this whole time, we resisted. ... Therefore, Iran became an example for forming an Islamic government, and for resisting enemies. This model of resistance has spread and been adopted across the Islamic world and today enjoys many supporters.

As you know, there's concern in the Bush administration that Iran needs to be contained. ... We hear the same from Arab states as well. What are Iran's regional ambitions? Can it be contained by America either militarily or diplomatically?

... Some governments are concerned about the Iranian influence. ... But that is not the case among the people of those countries. ... Regarding what they can do, I must say there is no way to use bombs against ideas and thoughts. What we offer are not weapons; we just provide our thoughts. When that thinking reaches Muslim people of the region, they feel they have found something dearly missing. ... Suddenly they ask themselves, are these things executable? And they see that in Iran such teachings have been put into practice. ...

Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam
Reformist Party, Iranian Parliament

... If Iran acted as a gendarme of the region before the revolution, it was not because of the United States. It had something to do with Iran's 7,000-year history of powerful kings who ruled Iran, who presented freedom to the world 2,000 years ago.

As an ancient civilization, Iran has always traditionally been the gendarme of this region. So when American policymakers invaded Iraq to overthrow its government, I should tell you frankly that they made a mistake not to have negotiated with Iran and they also made a mistake by not studying the region in order to know how to start and finish the job, so they wouldn't have to face the problems they face in Iraq today. ...

But I should say that the American plans for Iran suffer from a lack of good studies of the situation and that missing factor has contributed to American defeat in the region. Iran is independent.

We had a revolution 30 years ago and established a democracy in the region; we are proud of the fact that we have an election every year. Our parliament, president, and members of other institutions are elected by the people. Though as reformists, we have some criticism of the election process. But where else in the region can you find the essence of freedom and democracy as it exists in our system? A country with such nationalistic and religious strength, which is rooted in Shi'ism, cannot be easily attacked and brought to its knees. ...

Uzi Arad
Former director of intelligence, Mossad

photo of Arad

To what end are they seeking nuclear weapons, in your view?

It's a combination of motives, I suppose. ... They believe, probably, that nuclear weapons endow you with a kind of clout and the kind of power that would make you, essentially, into a world power.

They are led also by an ideological motivation that makes them believe that their ideology is indeed the right one. They are driven by conviction. They are driven by a sense of aggravation against the West. And they believe, with cause, that possession of such weapons will give them an unbeatable instrument of power.

And you know what? In a way, they are right. Even now, without having such weapons, only through the exaggeration of their position, they're already reaping the benefits of a presumed nuclear power. How can they explain, for example, the way you see the Westerners' -- and suddenly even within the United States -- efforts to engage the Iranians? You suddenly see a degree of consideration that comes only with the fact that they are becoming a powerful, potentially powerful, bad boy. Now, a powerful bad boy is what they want to be, except that they don't think they're bad. ...

So Iran is playing a highly risky game of encouraging violence and supporting terrorists. ... And all this done at a time when they are relatively inferior on account of the fact that they do not have nuclear weapons. Just think about the transformation that would occur in the Iranian sense of confidence and real capability to operate if they feel that they are capable of deterring the United States from doing anything against them or anyone else. ...

... What do you make of all this talk about a Shi'a revival? ...

Clearly we all now notice what was not noticed, say five, 10 years ago, that there is this chasm between the Sunni and the Shi'ites, and the Shi'ites being on the warpath. ... But let us not push that thing too far because it is not the only factor. Iran in some ways is also acting nationally. It's a great country with great ambitions, and it is acting as a national power. It might have acted the same even if it were Sunni, and that is a factor. ...

Hooshang Amirahmadi
American-Iranian Council

photo of Amirahmadi

... I don't believe in the thesis of Iran's growing power. Iran understands that it is not a power to deal with the United States; they will never fight the U.S. More importantly, Iran is very much like, I will say, North Korea, former Soviet Union: A system with a tremendous military [appearance], but inside it's decadent.

Before the revolution, Iran was an economic agent in that part of the world. After the revolution, the Arabs and Iranians changed place. The Arabs became increasingly an economic agent, ... and Iran took the Arab place of the '70s. Iran became a rejectionist state working with Hezbollah and Hamas: revolutionary, war monger, militaristic. This change from an economic agent to a military-security agent gave Iran the outward appearance of power. And yet ... there is nothing in there, honestly. ...

Gary Sick
White House aide for Iran, Carter and Reagan Administrations

... Iran has really become a major pivot, a major center of power in the Middle East. Why has it become such a power center? Because we got rid of their enemy, the Taliban, to the east; we got rid of their enemy, Saddam Hussein, to the west; and we kindly installed a Shi'a government for the first time in history in Iraq that was certain to be friendly to Iran. ... Now we're stuck with the problem of, how do we deal with that new power that has emerged? And I don't think we've come up with a very good answer to that question yet. ...

... Last summer [2006], with the war against Hezbollah, ... you had images across even Sunni countries of [Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad as heroes, and Saudis and Jordanians essentially winding up [aligned] with Israel and the U.S. Not a comfortable position for them to be in?

No, and also a position that I think it was almost impossible for the Sunni side to sustain. I mean, they are really worried about the emergence of Iran as a major power, and what they see as the sort of spread of Shi'a influence. Well, the real spread of Shi'a influence is in Iraq, and we're responsible for that; I mean, we're the ones that held those elections and made sure that the Shi'a would, in fact, be elected. So part of that, we have really conspired to make that happen.

But the reputation [of Hezbollah defeating Israel] is quite significant, and it has complicated the lives of the old-line Sunni states in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt -- who, in a way, see a new sort of geopolitics of the region where you have Israel on the west and Iran on the east as the major poles of power in the region. Neither of those, obviously, are Sunni states; neither one of them is Arab. And they have reason to be concerned about that, and I think, to some degree, that helps explain why Saudi Arabia has become much more activist in promoting foreign policy solutions. They want to push themselves back into the game.

The stakes are very high for [the Sunni states]?

Very high. ... I mean, they are accustomed to being the countries that dominate politics in the Middle East, and all of a sudden they're in danger of being marginalized by these two rival powers emerging at either end of the region. ...

John Bolton
U.S. ambassador to the U.N., 2005-06

photo of Bolton

... I think Iran is trying to increase its power within the Muslim world in the thousand-year-long conflict between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. I think it's trying to increase its geographic influence in the broader Middle East, an increase in influence which could affect oil and natural gas prices well into this century. And I think it's trying to have a broader global influence as well. I think the pursuit of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and support for international terrorism are all pieces of evidence of that desire to expand Iranian power.

Do you think they sense a weakness on the United States' part and on the Europeans' part?

I think they, in a way, are following the dictum of the Vietnamese communists that said you push with a bayonet until you meet concrete, and then you withdraw. This was the theory of guerrilla warfare. I think they're pushing. I don't think they're meeting concrete or anything else, and I think they'll continue to push until they see resistance.

And just to be clear, then, the kind of resistance you're talking about is what? What would actually be effective?

Four or five years ago, if we had really pushed for strong, broadly accepted international economic sanctions, it might have been enough to dissuade Iran from continuing to pursue nuclear weapons. I think that they have used the past four to five years of diplomacy to make enormous progress to achieve domestic control, domestic capacity over the nuclear weapons program, all the different aspects they need.

So for that reason, I don't see sanctions today as being timely or effective, and it's a great tragedy that we've pursued diplomacy to the exclusion of other methods, thus constraining the number of options we have now to regime change or, as a last resort, the use of force. ...

Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies

photo of Cordesman

... Has their influence in some ways expanded? Yes. Has this created a permanent, lasting security situation? No. Is talk of Iran somehow being some kind of hegemon in the Gulf meaningful? No, it's absurd.

Elaborate on that, because a lot of people say it is a hegemon.

Well, first, the dictionary definition of hegemon, at a minimum, means "dominating influence." The United States dominates the Gulf. The United States has superiority in naval and air power that can virtually block any kind of Iranian venture. ...

In terms of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia is not a major military power, but it has a more effective air force and much more modern equipment. A lot of the Gulf states have more modern surface-to-air missiles. They are not defenseless. They are not well coordinated, but they don't need to be with major U.S. forces present in the area. ...

The other difficulty here is that in some ways what Iran has provoked is a growing tension between Sunni and Shi'ite, and most of its neighbors are Sunni and it's Shi'ite. The neighbors that count are Arab, and it's largely Persian. So ... the fact that somebody is irritating and can perform spoiler functions doesn't make it a hegemon.

Do you think the regime or powerful element within it have ambitions to be the regional hegemon?

I suspect that secretly somewhere in their hearts every leader wants to be one, but in reality I think this is an opportunistic power. If it is given a power vacuum, if it sees its neighbors are weak, if the United States does not contain or find the proper mix of incentives and disincentives to shape its behavior, it will go where it can and expand its influence and power as it can. ...

So the ambitions, I think, are there. Iran would like to be more powerful, have far more influence, like to be seen as the most important power in the Gulf, which is very different from being a hegemon. But I don't think its leaders have that kind of broader regional ambitions. And if they do, it is more likely to be a matter of religion than it is of power politics. ...

home | introduction | watch online | interviews | themes | join the discussion
producer's chat | readings & links | site map | dvd & transcript | press reaction
teacher's guide | producer's notebook | credits | privacy policy | journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home | wgbh | pbs

posted october 23, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation