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At Crucial Juncture, Iran Seeks Edge on U.S.

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page A19

TEHRAN -- A quarter-century after U.S.-Iran relations collapsed, Iranians are angrier and more anxious about U.S. policy than at any time since the period from 1979 to 1981, when the United States took in the deposed and dying shah, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy and 52 hostages were held for 444 days.

Repeated U.S. warnings about Iran's nuclear intentions have sparked widespread fears of a new confrontation, Iranian officials and analysts said -- one that would dwarf the crisis that erupted after Tehran's 1979 revolution.

Protesters in Tehran demonstrate against the U.S.-led raid on Fallujah, Iraq in November. Analysts say the U.S. position in the region is becoming weaker. (AP/isna)

In an effort to contain U.S. influence along Iran's borders and preempt U.S. action, they said, Tehran is trying to exploit two trump cards -- its influence over neighboring countries and rising international demand for oil. Iran is beefing up aid to allied groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are scheduled to hold elections next year. Iran is also using oil to deepen alliances with strategic nations such as energy-hungry China.

The situation is a sharp reversal from a year ago, when swift victories by U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan sent shock waves through Iran. The country was almost encircled by U.S. troops on land and sea, analysts here said. The squeeze was a major factor in Iran's agreement in October 2003 to give up uranium enrichment, a key process for peaceful nuclear energy that can be diverted for military use.

But Iraq's persistent insurgency, the failure of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden and the inability of Kabul's U.S.-backed government to consolidate national control have made the United States more vulnerable in the region and given Iran more leverage, said officials and analysts in both nations.

"The United States has all these places, but it can't be successful without Iran," said Mohsen Rezaie, a presidential contender who commanded Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. "We are now at the top of the mountain, and the Americans are at the bottom."

A year ago, the Bush administration boasted about the positive impact that free and fair Iraqi elections would have on Iran. Today, the administration is concerned about Iran's negative impact on Iraq, said Robert Malley, a former assistant to President Bill Clinton who works for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit, conflict-analysis organization.

"Chaos in Iraq and higher oil prices have emboldened the Iranian regime, which still feels threatened by U.S. pressure but far more confident it can withstand it," Malley said in an interview in Washington. As Iranians debate how to deal with the United States, he said, the situation has strengthened ideologues who advocate "standing firm," particularly on nuclear issues.

Iran walked out of an original nuclear deal, which had to be renegotiated this fall by Britain, France and Germany. Moreover, the deal is only a preliminary agreement; a permanent arrangement remains elusive.

Internal political shifts have also changed the dynamics of the U.S.-Iran standoff. A year ago, Iran's president and the majority in parliament were reformers who wanted to end the mistrust between the two nations.

But conservatives took control of parliament this fall, after many reform candidates were barred from running in February elections. And conservatives are expected to do whatever it takes to win the presidential election next spring, Iranian analysts say.

So rather than spur political change, Iranian analysts warn that U.S. military action on suspected Iranian nuclear sites could backfire, echoing the impact of Iraq's 1980 invasion. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war reignited Iranian nationalism and allowed fundamentalist clerics to consolidate their hold on Iran just when the Islamic revolution had begun to wobble.

"If America uses military means against Iran, even if it attacks only one point, the result here will be a rise of militarism in Iran -- and the suppression of any democratic trend," said Mohsen Mirdamadi, a ringleader of the embassy seizure 25 years ago who later became a pro-democracy member of parliament. "This is a problem for reformers," he said.

Iranian officials contend that Bush's reelection, strongly backed by conservative Christian groups, also redefined the standoff.

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