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Iran Faces Foreign Policy Choices

Many analysts note that Iran is generating concern in Washington -- from Teheran's nuclear program to its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its support for U.S.-declared terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. But according to most experts, Iran believes that its size and geo-strategic location entitles it to a major role in regional affairs.

Political relations between Tehran and Washington began in the mid-1800s and remained friendly for more than a century. In the 1950s, the U.S. helped install Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Iran's leader. His reign ended in forced exile in 1979 and the rise of a Shi'ite Islamic Republic in Iran, that was intensely anti-American.

Hostility toward the United States culminated that year when Islamic revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held nearly 70 Americans hostage for 444 days. The two countries have had no formal diplomatic relations since then. The U.S. has designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and Teheran is subject to American trade and export controls.

Nuclear Ambitions

In recent months, the United Nations Security Council has joined Washington in stepping up economic sanctions to force Iran to end its uranium enrichment program. The U.S. and other Western nations contend that Iran pursues the program to produce weapons grade plutonium, an accusation Tehran denies.

Many experts say Iran's nuclear ambitions have made it a top foreign policy challenge for the United States. Some analysts also contend that Iran wants to establish its primacy in the Middle East. According to Steve Yetiv, a political scientist at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, "Thanks to the U.S., it doesn't have to worry about the Taliban and about Saddam. It's the military powerhouse at the regional level, which has never been the case. I imagine it'll try to build its influence there even more with its current proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah on the Arab-Israeli side, and Moqtada al-Sadr and other militias in Iraq. It'll build its military even more. And if the U.S. is weakened there, then it becomes even stronger."

"Iran has been very unhelpful in Iraq and continues to support militias that attack U.S. troops," says James Phillips, a foreign affairs analyst with Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "Even though it's in Iran's national interest that the Taliban be defeated, it provides arms to the Taliban because the Taliban is focused on killing Americans and Afghans allied to America. If it were just a matter of national interests, the U.S. and Iran would get along a lot better. But there is a lot more conflict because the small number of unelected leaders in Iran seek to expand the Islamic Revolution that Iran underwent in 1979," says Phillips.

Ideology or National Defense?

But other experts argue that ideology is not the only driving force behind Tehran's foreign policy. Abbas Amanat of Yale University says Iranian leaders are concerned primarily with national defense. "They see they have been declared a part of the 'axis of evil' [by President Bush] and they are going to be the next target. Americans are present in Iraq. They are present in Afghanistan. They are in close alliance with the countries of the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. They have a fairly strong presence in Azerbaijan. They have a strong presence in parts of Central Asia. And they are in alliance with Turkey," says Amanat.

"The United States has aircraft carriers stationed off the coast of Iran, which so far as Iran is concerned may well contain tactical nuclear weapons," according to Selig Harrison of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "The feeling of encirclement also results from the fact that the U.S. not only has military basis in Iraq and Afghanistan, but some of them are quite close to the border of Iran and are perceived in Iran as related to potential military action against Iran. It has leaked out that various kinds things are being done to put pressure on Iran, including covert military action against the regime through ethnic minority insurgencies aided by U.S. proxies, Pakistan and Israel."

Harrison, who recently visited Tehran, says the Iranian leadership wants a different relationship with the United States. "It's what can Iran do to avoid military action by the United States in the future. Part of this is seen in terms of the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan. The perception in Tehran is that instability in Iraq and Afghanistan is dangerous for the security of Iran and that by cooperating with the United States, on what are perceived as honorable terms, that danger of instability can be reduced. I think that the perception of Iran as [being] in an aggressive mode is not born out by the major concerns of the leadership there."

A Line in the Sand

Some Middle East experts are urging broader talks between the U.S. and Iran to defuse tensions. But others, including political scientist Steve Yetiv, say strategic differences between the two nations run too deep. "The bottom line for Iran's regime is that they want to know no one is going to try to overthrow them or undermine them. They want to know that they can be respected and they want to know that they can have their nuclear cycle like other countries and to have some kind of increased influence in the Middle East, including the potential to drive oil prices higher. And if they can get all those things, then they would probably restrict some of their foreign policy behavior. The problem is what Iran wants at a minimum is not what the U.S. would give at a maximum."

Few experts say a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is likely, but many insist that diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions could contain Tehran's nuclear ambitions in the short term and eventually usher in a new Iranian government with interests that are friendly toward the United States.

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