Iran Teeters Between Two Extremes

Iran is seeking to assert itself by trying to become a major world player as it continues to defy the international community over its controversial nuclear program.  Modern Iran is caught between two extremes: religious fundamentalism and political nationalism.  

For many westerners, the word Iran evokes images of Americans held hostage by extremists in Tehran. The 444-day crisis followed the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution that deposed pro-western, secular ruler Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. The hostage takers demanded the Shah be repatriated from the United States, where he was receiving medical treatment.  

Persian Legacy 

Iran, however, wasn't always the country's name.  Until 1935, when its name was officially changed, this nation, which spans Southwest Asia and the Middle East, was known as Persia.  The resulting controversy led the Shah to keep both names to appease those who argued that Iran was more accurate because the Persian Empire no longer existed, and those who favored Persia to remain true to the nation's ancient roots.

It is from this historical perspective that Columbia University's Gary Sick, an expert on Middle East politics, says Iran, a nation of more than 70 million people, has always considered itself a major power.

"This is a country with 2500 years of history, including at one time running one of the largest empires in history, where they governed the whole known world practically.  So they have always had a vision of themselves as a great power and a major player," says Sick.

Some analysts argue that Mohamed Reza Pahlavi wanted to turn his oil producing country into a regional superpower and largely succeeded.  Today's Iran is a major petroleum producer, with oil accounting for nearly 80 percent of its total exports and about half of the government's revenues. 

Islamic Revolution

But the 1979 Islamic Revolution changed everything. Alienated by Pahlavi's authoritarian policies, the country's clergy declared Iran an Islamic Republic, fundamentally changing its socio-political landscape.  Then, says Columbia University's Gary Sick, Iran assumed a new role.

"Iran had a different vision of itself, basically as the leader of all Muslims, as being the power in the world that represented all the Muslims.  And they were going to export their brand of revolution and Islamism around the world.  That didn't work out very well.  Very few countries really wanted to follow them.  They didn't provide much of a model for the rest of the world," says Sick.

Some experts say Iran's ruling elite have used religion as a guise for legitimizing their rule, muzzling political and personal freedoms, especially for women, undermining secular and reformist forces, and isolating the country from the rest of the world. 

Nearly three decades later, the effects of the revolution continue to be felt in Iranian society.  The result, according to political scientist Mehrzad Boroujerdi of Syracuse University in New York, is a conflicted nation, torn between extremes.

"The two major components of Iranian identity for the last few centuries have been Shiite Islam and Iranian sense of nationalism that has a more secular or pre-Islamic orientation.  So the dynamic relationship between these two has been at the center of the Iranian quest for identity.  You have gone from one extreme to another.  And now the pendulum is swinging to the middle and you're trying to find a happy marriage between the two," says Boroujerdi.

Ahmadinejad's Iran

Many observers say Iranians are yearning for more political and social openness, but that it is unlikely the country's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will encourage that kind of change.  The Iranian leader has promised to serve the common man and fight corruption and unemployment, but, according to most observers, has yet to deliver.

Sociologist Elham Geytanchi of California State University at Long Beach says Mr. Ahmadinejad brings to power a conservative segment of society that has been marginalized since the 1980s.

"He represents a faction among the Iranian population that was very much in political power during the Iran-Iraq War [1980-1988].  They were war veterans and they were kind of forgotten, pushed to the margins of society during the reform era.  Now they are back and they're back full force.  And they want to make sure that they get attention," says Geytanchi.

And many analysts say attention is what Iran craves, especially from the West.  Some experts suggest that Iran's continued nuclear program - - despite international opposition - - fits in with Tehran's desire for world recognition and respect. 

But sociologist Elham Geytanchi says Iran's president has manipulated the nuclear issue for personal political advantage.

"I think Ahmadinejad has proven that he can use this crisis to his benefit.  And he has successfully, to some degree, turned this whole crisis into a national crisis. This is all devastating to Iran.  If there is an international confrontation, this would be disastrous for the Iranian population," says Geytanchi.

The Nuclear Controversy

Iran's nuclear program, which it says is intended for peaceful use, but could be used to produce atomic weapons, has negatively affected the country.  Some observers say it has deterred foreign investment and could limit economic growth, projected to be around five percent this year.  Many economists who had forecast up to seven percent growth scaled back their predictions soon after the new Iranian government took office.

Djavad Salehi Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, says President Ahmadinejad has offered a bleak economic outlook in light of the ongoing nuclear controversy and its possible repercussions.

"Because of the international crisis, all bets seem to be off.  You see him talking about tightening your belt, preparing for an economic crisis, whereas a few months ago, these conservatives coming to power, and not just Ahmadinejad, some who won control of the parliament, were talking about Iran becoming another Japan," says Isfahani.

Despite Iran's continued defiance of the United Nations and the international community over its nuclear program, some observers say the country is changing.  They note that it has moderated its behavior over the years, albeit very slowly. 

For many, however, Iran's 1979 image as a radical, revolutionary nation remains etched in western minds.  And some experts warn that Iran might eventually conform to that image.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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