Tehran’s sense of strategic encirclement, allied to Washington’s hostile rhetoric, could make Iran the epicentre of the next regional crisis.

The nuclear politics of Iran have recently returned to centre–stage as hurried diplomatic contact between several European governments and Tehran, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), averted the possible referral of Iran’s nuclear activities to the United Nations Security Council. An immediate crisis has been forestalled, but the possibility of such an event remains in the background. Indeed, the nature of the relationship between Iran, Israel and the United States means that it is highly likely.

The view from Washington

The reinvigorated Bush administration feels an absolute requirement to ensure the security of the United States and its international interests by any means necessary. This is evident in its pursuit of the “war on terror” and regime termination in Afghanistan and Iraq, its substantial increase in defence spending, its move towards national missile defence, and its rigorous intention to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As if this were not enough, two additional factors conspire to shape a particularly severe US policy towards Iran: historic experience of American entanglements with Iran, and the attitude of Israel.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 was a profound shock to the United States, especially in the context of its close alliance with the Shah’s Iran during much of the cold war. The immediate aftermath of the revolution, dominated by the 444–day hostage crisis at the American embassy, meant that Republicans in particular were vigorously opposed to the Islamic regime from the start. This was a factor in the US’s tacit support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war of 1980–88, when Iraq was seen as a “buffer” against Tehran’s perceived extremism and expansionism.

Throughout the 1990s, the US’s oppositional stance towards Iran continued. By contrast, several European states (including Britain) developed extensive diplomatic contacts with Iran in this period. This underlines the significance for Washington of Israel’s perception that Iran is the greatest long–term threat to its security.

Israel’s policy is rooted in a desire to prevent any other state in the region acquiring nuclear weapons, but it is also concerned by Iran’s support for Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. Just as US attitudes were hardened by the hostage crisis in 1979–80, the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) experience in southern Lebanon was seminal in shaping its attitude to Iran. During 1982–85 especially, Hezbollah actions made it impossible for the IDF to maintain its occupation of large parts of southern Lebanon. Israel’s withdrawal in the mid–1980s is recognised (internally if not internationally) as the hardest reversal in IDF history. Hezbollah, presumably backed by Tehran, remains a dominant force in southern Lebanon today.

This experience, which the pro–Israel lobby in Washington is not slow to invoke, reinforces the Bush administration’s belief (and its neo–conservative component in particular) that Iran is a core threat to US interests in the region.

The view from Tehran

The forces within the Iranian political system prepared to work for better relations with western states do not stretch to those theocratic elements that wield most power. Yet two aspects of these hardliners’ worldview are more widely shared across the country.

The first is intense national pride: Iran’s self–perception as a historically great country that is heir to 3,000 years of civilisation dovetails with a belief that it is essentially the keeper of true (Shi’a) Islam, site of the world’s finest resource of Islamic learning and believers. Here, Iran (Persia) is rivalled only by China in an innate belief in its global significance; this is also a factor that survives changes of political regime.

The second is an enduring belief that Iran has been subject to systematic and insidious western influence – most recently in Britain’s and the United States’s interference in the 1950s and their sustenance of the Shah’s regime in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, there is palpable unease that Iran appears virtually surrounded by a potential enemy – the United States. The US has terminated two regimes on either side of Iran in the past three years, the Taliban’s Afghanistan and Saddam’s Iraq. It retains military forces in Afghanistan and massive numbers of troops in Iraq, with the intention to develop a number of permanent bases in the latter country. It also has a military presence in Pakistan (a nuclear power) and has recently established a series of bases in central Asia that give it greater leverage over Caspian basin oil reserves.

Iran’s unease extends to a private acceptance that the US has near–total superiority in military power: evidenced by the very powerful fifth fleet controlling the Persian gulf and the Arabian sea, and bases in western Gulf states and in Iran’s north–western neighbour, Turkey. Within this already insecure regional context, Iran sees itself illicitly labelled as part of an “axis of evil” by the world’s only superpower – which has declared itself ready to pre–empt perceived threats to its security.

Iran’s economy and society indicate the country’s potential. Its population of 74 million is expected to grow to over 87 million by 2015; it has the world’s fourth–largest oil reserves and second–largest gas reserves. But this potential is shadowed by an ever–present sense of vulnerability at the political level. In this circumstance, there are undoubtedly strong pressures within Iran for the development of some kind of nuclear deterrent. In the 1970s, the Shah saw nuclear weapons as an indicator of regional great–power status; now, they are viewed as a necessary, direct response to an imminent strategic threat.

The manner in which North Korea has “jumped” to a limited nuclear status will have been watched with considerable interest in Tehran.

US attitudes and Iranian politics

The process of political decision–making in Iran is complex; ultimate power still tends to lie with the religious leadership, which is particularly strong in the judiciary. There are profound tensions between a conservative theocracy and a diffuse yet vigorous reform movement; the latter seeks inspiration not in the 1979 revolution but in the 1906 constitutional revolution that set Iran on a more democratic path.

Many ordinary Iraqis, especially the very large numbers of younger people, hoped that the president elected in 1997, Mohammad Khatami www.president.ir/eng/, and the civil government would pursue a more reformist course. That this has not happened may be attributed to the innate power of the religious elites, or to incompetence; in any case, its consequence is widespread disillusion and stinging criticism (from students, young people, and elements of civil society) of the government.

The United States has supported such criticism, and the limited movements for change (like student demonstrations) that express it. The problem is that Washington’s partisanship is unlikely to advance its goal of regime change, for the more conservative religious leadership can find a popular echo by identifying any “progressive” tendency in Iran as a vehicle for US interference. In its bellicose approach, the United States may actually be circumscribing the ability of the Tehran government, which is not in complete control of the political environment, to find a reformist path.

The nuclear trigger

The United States and Israel remain set on precluding Iran’s manufacture of its own nuclear “deterrent” – if necessary, using military action.

Three complications of this approach are evident: attitudes in much of western Europe, where there is an even greater difference of opinion with Washington than over Iraq; the close links between Russia and Iran; and – perhaps most important of all – China’s increasing interest in developing a solid economic relationship with Iran.

China’s interest stems from the need to ensure future supplies of oil and gas to its rapidly industrialising economy. The diplomatic exchanges between China and Iran in recent months have included the visit to Tehran by China’s foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, in November 2004. China has signed a liquefied natural–gas import deal worth over $70 billion over twenty–five years, and it may seek to help develop the huge Yadavaran field (see Antoaneta Bezlova, “China–Iran tango threatens US leverage”, Asia Times, 30 November 2004).

Beijing sees Iran – even more than the Caspian basin – as the best prospect for maintaining large supplies of fossil fuels over the next generation. In Tehran, a closer relationship with Beijing means a degree of security in the face of potential interference from Israel or the United States. Indeed, senior politicians in Tehran now welcome the prospect that China may soon replace Japan as the largest single market for Iranian oil and gas.

This evolving partnership, along with Iran’s friendship with Russia and its milder associations with European Union states, does not presage any policy change in Washington, which still views Iran as the main threat to US interests in the middle east. The risk of a crisis therefore remains. But this complex international picture does mean that any such crisis would generate strained relationships between the United States and Europe, with the possibility too of an uncompromising reaction from China. Once more, the politics of energy, especially oil, emerges as the most potent hidden factor in regional political insecurity.