Iran, Ready For a Test Of Wills

By David Ignatius
Friday, September 1, 2006

TEHRAN -- Behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant rhetoric lies a conviction that is widely shared here: Iran is a rising power in the Middle East while the United States is in decline -- and now is the moment for Iran to emerge as a regional superpower.

You hear versions of this cocky nationalism in almost every conversation. And when you look around this surprisingly modern metropolis of 12 million people, it's easy to think that Iran's time may indeed have come. The problem is that its national ambitions are wrapped today in the fanatical language of Ahmadinejad, who emerged from among the hardest of this country's hard-core Islamic revolutionaries. He and his followers seem eager for the confrontation that lies ahead.

The situation in Iraq bolsters Iranian confidence in its test of wills against America. As the Iranians view it, the United States has stumbled into a pit from which it cannot easily escape. There is a disagreement here between pragmatists who see in America's troubles an opportunity to open a mutually beneficial dialogue with the Great Satan and hard-liners who would rather let America suffer.

"Iran thinks in Iraq it has the upper hand -- that is the view of the Iranian military and political establishment," says Kayhan Barzegar, a professor of international relations here who advises some members of the leadership on Iraq. He prepared a recent paper, "Iran's Security Interest in the New Iraq," for Iran's Expediency Council, which is headed by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and is the center point for the pragmatist faction. Barzegar says that it is precisely because the United States needs Iran's assistance that a dialogue between the two over Iraq makes sense.

"Iraq is the momentous moment, where the two countries can work with each other in tangible ways," argues Barzegar. Iran can play a decisive role not just because of its links with the Shiite-led government and militia groups, he says, but also because of what he calls its "soft power" as the dominant economic, political and cultural player in the region.

Iran officially embraced this idea of dialogue on Iraq early this year, in a statement from Ali Larijani, Iran's national security adviser. But the Bush administration pulled back, worried that talks with Tehran about Iraq would obstruct the administration's larger goal of containing the Iranian nuclear program. The failure of the initiative undercut the advocates of dialogue and emboldened the hard-liners.

Ahmadinejad dismisses the idea of talks with the United States about Iraq. When I asked the Iranian president at a news conference here Tuesday whether he thought the two countries should discuss ways to stabilize Baghdad, he responded with invective. "The people of the [Iraqi] nation hate you now. You should go out and leave them," he said. Running through all of his statements was the same supremely self-confident theme: Iran's moment has come, and America's has gone.

A more nuanced but equally tough view of Iran's "manifest destiny" in the Middle East comes from Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan newspaper. He meets frequently with Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he shares an interest in Persian poetry. Shariatmadari says the United States is in an impossible bind in Iraq: It has brought to power Islamic parties that are fundamentally opposed to America's interests. When Larijani announced in March that he was ready for talks about Iraq, Shariatmadari immediately countered with a critical editorial. Now, he says, Khamenei has made clear he opposes such negotiations.

How do Khamenei and the other ruling mullahs views Iran's role in the region? Shariatmadari answered thus: "Big changes are on the way. People in the region have understood that the time for bullying and military attacks has passed."

Take a stroll in Iran's old bazaar, for generations the heart of the city's business life, and you sense the public eagerness for Iran's resurgence. You hear many views about Ahmadinejad, including those of people who tell you frankly that they loathe him, but everyone seems to want a stronger Iran.

"We are a powerful country," says Mohammed Rezaie, who fought in the Iraq-Iran war and now sells fabric for men's suits. "We have 2,500 years of history and vast resources -- oil, minerals and hard-working people. If America keeps pushing us, our resistance will just be greater." Hamid Vasheghani, who has a stall selling kitchenware, agrees. In challenging American power, he says, "We are showing the world what kind of nation we are -- in culture, medicine, industry and military power. We have important things to say now."

The trick for America and its allies is somehow to recognize Iran's ambitions to be a regional power without allowing the revolutionary leadership embodied by Ahmadinejad to further destabilize the Middle East. I'm a naturally optimistic person, but right now that looks to me like Mission Impossible.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company