TEHRAN, Iran—President Bush freed Afghanistan from the Taliban and toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but in doing so he also may have unshackled an even more dangerous foe: Iran.
Western diplomats and local officials in the Middle East say Iran, widely considered a supporter of international terrorism that's trying to develop nuclear weapons, is emerging as the unintended winner of Bush's war on terrorism.
Iran's rise as a key power broker in the Persian Gulf is an alarming prospect for the United States, which has used political and economic sanctions to contain the Islamic Republic and its radical government for a quarter century, since Iranian radicals seized the American Embassy in Tehran.
"Iran has definitely come to be a major beneficiary" of U.S. policy since Sept. 11, 2001, said Mohammed Hadi Semati, a political scientist from Tehran University now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "With the exception of the current chaos, everything that comes out of the Iraqi operation is good for Iran's national interests."
The logic of Iran's ascendance is simple. Iran sat back as the United States launched expensive wars and defeated Iranian enemies on two of its borders, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran's population is predominantly Shiite Muslim, and with Iraq's Shiite majority certain to dominate any new Iraqi government, the two nations will share cultural and religious ties that will likely bringing the formerly warring neighbors closer.
Senior U.S. officials in Washington fear that a Shiite uprising in Iraq could trigger unrest in neighboring Kuwait, where Shiites are 30 percent of the population; in Bahrain, which is 70 percent Shiite, and in the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where Shiites are a narrow majority.
Iranians, who succeeded in exporting their Islamic revolution to Shiite parts of Lebanon after Israel invaded that country in 1982, believe they've now played their cards well as America stumbled into a guerrilla war in Iraq.
"Two factors have made our position stronger. First is the American attitude, the American behavior. They came to Iraq under the slogan of human rights and democracy, but unfortunately, the Americans could not prove they are sincere in what they are saying," said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi. "The second was our behavior in Iraq was very clear ... we are not looking for hegemony."
There's unmistakable confidence at the highest levels of the Iranian government about its role.
"There are some realities that cannot be changed by any power, especially that Iran is a free country and a very powerful country in the region," said Mohsen Rezaei, the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, which advises the supreme leader. Rezaei is widely seen as a top presidential contender in next spring's election. "Iran's regional role is a fact. And if America had accepted that fact, then Iraq wouldn't have attacked Kuwait and Iran, nor would the Taliban have been successful in Afghanistan and the Twin Towers would be still standing."
The protracted war with insurgents in Iraq has also weakened America's standing in the region. Many people across the Middle East have begun to embrace Iran's vision of the United States as a "Great Satan." America's aim of bringing democracy to the region doesn't square with what they see happening. Instead, they're convinced that American policy is aimed at controlling the Middle East's vast oil reserves and subduing both Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
The changing political reality worries Washington's Arab allies, who privately complain that the White House ought to engage Iran rather than isolate it. Many say it's the only way to shore up America's influence amid a widespread perception that Bush is waging a war on Islam rather than terror.
"Basically, Iran is a much more serious threat to the region than terrorism," said one Persian Gulf state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Terrorism is something everyone is dealing with and taking seriously, whereas we're not dealing with Iranians seriously and we're not dealing with them as a powerful state. We're pushing them into a corner."
Compounding Arab concerns is that Iran, which is Muslim but not Arab, is poised to become the region's second nuclear power after Israel.
"Certainly I wouldn't like to see an American policy that would shift 180 degrees and jump into the arms of the Iranians. But we have to engage with Iran, and we have to be sure Iran should understand they can become a better society and better country and better state without having nuclear power," said Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahayan, the United Arab Emirates information minister.
"Strategically, a winning Iran is better for the region because Iran would feel confident and less threatened and isolated," said Semati. "If it comes out of this U.S. containment, then I think it will feel more confident and compelled to sit down and talk."
Top Iranian officials insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and that their goal is to be a regional team player and not to impose their will on Iraq or any other Middle Eastern country.
"It's not to Iran's advantage to impose on Iraq the way America did," said Rezaei. "After this, the Iraqi people will look to a regional solution with the help of the countries in the region.
"I believe the facts of convergence exceed the facts that separate us" across the region, he added.
Iran's new sense of self-confidence has been felt most recently in European capitals, where leaders were warned of a chill in relations with the oil-rich nation of 70 million people if they refused to remove impediments to its pursuit of nuclear power.
In a rare diplomatic outburst against its Arab neighbors, Iran recently clashed repeatedly with the United Arab Emirates over fishing rights near islands that both claim. Soon thereafter, on June 21, Iranian authorities arrested eight British sailors in three boats that were patrolling near the southern Iraqi city of Basra. They entered what Iran insisted was its territory. The sailors were released four days later.
Iran has kept a low profile in Iraqi affairs. It's embraced each coalition-approved Iraqi council, while echoing widespread Iraqi calls for timely free elections.
"We tried to maintain good relations with all groups, not only the Shiites, but also the Sunnis and the Kurds," said Asefi. "What we care about is security in the region, and we tried not to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs."
The Iranian strategy has gone far to win over Iraq's long oppressed Shiite Muslims. Their ties have been strengthened as Iraqis watched security slip, reconstruction falter and elections be delayed under the American-led occupation.
The fundamentalist tone of Iraqi insurgents is also in tune with Iran's increasingly hard-line government.
Iranian troops reportedly guard the most influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani. Iranian agents are suspected to have crossed into Iraq with the mass pilgrimages of ordinary Iranians to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and they appear to wield some control over Shiite insurgents.
Photographs of the Islamic Republic's founder and Iran's current supreme leader hang next to rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's photo in the holiest Shiite site, the Grand Imam Ali Shrine in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf.
How much influence Iran will have in Iraq is uncertain. For one, Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war, with Kurds and Sunni Muslims determined to limit the Shiites' role in the new government. Squabbles among Shiite factions are another threat.
There's also widespread resistance to Iranian-style rule by religious leaders among Iraqi Shiites, who prefer Sistani's approach, in which religious leaders only offer guidance from behind the scenes.
Nevertheless, Iran will likely be the social, political and economic center of Shiites from Lebanon to Afghanistan, who share a powerful sense of historical oppression. It's in Iran's interest to combine the Shiites of the region into "one very powerful entity, religion-driven," one former high-ranking Jordanian official said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.
That's discomforting to many Arab leaders in the region, who've long abandoned their support for Iran's Islamic revolution. Iran's ruling Shiite clerics have made little secret of their disdain for pro-Western Arab rulers who are Sunni Muslims. The Islamic Republic's founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared Saudi Arabia's rulers unfit to be guardians of Islam's holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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