Tuesday, May 18, 2004

KUWAIT. — At a time when Muslim fundamentalists are busily trying to export Islamic revolutions around the globe, they might want to take a good close look at Iran.

When the popular uprising, propelled by Islamic fervor and initiated largely by students and Tehran bazaar shop owners, overthrew the shah in 1979, the mullahs and ayatollahs believed Iran would rapidly export its Islamic revolution. The expectation was that Iran would spread fundamentalism, much the same way the Soviet Union exported socialism to dozens of countries around the world, uniting them into a pact against the West.

But surprise, surprise, the mullahs, ayatollahs and associated revolutionary guards tried to interest a number of countries to follow in their footsteps, but ultimately failed. There is not one country that has adopted the Iranian system.

Yes, Iran had limited success installing a detachment of Guardians of the Revolution in Lebanon, thanks to a governmental void created by Lebanon’s civil war. The Iranians thus were able to temporarily Islamize parts of Beirut’s southern suburbs and the historic Bekaa Valley town of Baalback, as well as a string of hamlets in south Lebanon. But even in those locations, chadors and Islamic headscarves mix freely with skin-tight Western denims, Nike T-shirts and New York Yankee ballcaps.

In short, Iran’s revolution was “unsellable” outside its borders. Now, some 25 years later, Iran is beginning to change once more, slowly swinging back towards a more moderate center. As Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born writer recently pointed out, “Iran is coming around.” Nicholas D. Kristof, just returned from a trip to Iran writes in the New York Times, ” … the Iranian regime is destined for the ash heap of history.”

With elections still rigged, the country has a long way to go before it can be confused with anything resembling a democracy. Nevertheless, it is a very different Iran from the one that ousted the shah, and who 21/2 decades ago hanged from construction cranes anyone who dared oppose the Islamic Revolution. And with a large young population born after the revolution, the change will continue apace.

“We do not want the Islam of the Taliban,” said Atta-Allah Muhajirani, an Iranian official, speaking at a conference in Kuwait on “Iran and the Future.” But, said Mr. Muhajirani, “nor do we want the Islam that Bush saved.”

So what does Iran want today?

There is little doubt Iran strongly desires to establish itself as a regional power in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region as well as in the Middle East. Iran has been supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories in their fight against Israel. Iran has trained, financed and armed both groups — which the U.S. State Department considers to be engaged in terrorist activities and has placed on its terror watch list.

Iran has tried to influence Lebanese politics, whenever possible, through the Hezbollah militia and the Hezbollah political system, now represented in the Lebanese parliament. The government in Tehran has in the past supported terrorist groups and has even engaged in terrorist activities itself.

Iran has had dreams of attaining regional superiority since the days of the shah. And while much has changed in Tehran under the mullahs, Iran’s “need” to enjoy junior-superpower status does not seem to have abated in any way.

However, if Iran’s desire to export revolution has somewhat faded, it still very much want to remain involved in regional politics — such as in Iraq where Iranian agents are extremely active in supporting the Shi’ite community.

Iran is widely believed to be backing the troublesome cleric, Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic still holds high hopes of becoming a nuclear power. Despite cat-and-mouse games with the International Atomic Inspection Agency, Iran, many observers believe, is proceeding with plans to become the second nuclear power in the Middle East, after Israel, as well as the second Muslim nation to go nuclear, after Pakistan. While Iran may not actually produce a nuclear device, it may well proceed with learning and preparing the technology that will allow it to build one.

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned that “Iran’s nuclear activities threaten the Gulf and the world.” Mr. Clawson said Iran could be initiating a nuclear arms race between Gulf countries, forcing Saudi Arabia, for example, to feel threatened enough to develop its own nuclear program.

Iran today will do everything it can to maintain its junior-superpower status in the region. The great peril from that is a danger of partial confrontation between Israel and Iran.

All indications seem to confirm Israel will not sit back and allow Iran to develop its military nuclear capability. Under such circumstances, a repeat performance of the strike on Iraq’s Osirak facility is almost a given. The relevant question here is how would Iran reply? As Iran still commands much influence over Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Israeli pre-emptive strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites would undoubtedly unleash military or guerrilla action along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert and national security analyst for ABC News, told a weekend conference in Kuwait, “Rational stability is not characteristic to the region.”

Maybe for that very reason the long overdue dialogue between Iran and the United States might just get off the ground, thinks Mr. Cordesman, who said the name calling — Axis of Evil vs. Great Satan — must stop as it will get both countries nowhere. The trick is to create a climate of trust.

Trust Iran? Unlikely, say many Kuwaitis who live next door and like to keep a watchful eye on their powerful neighbor. Mohammed A. Al-Jassem, editor-in-chief of the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al-Watan and Newsweek in Arabic believes the Iranians are difficult to trust and says Iranians have been “increasingly active” in Iraq, where their intelligence services are positioning themselves for the post-U.S. occupation period.

“The Iranians know that the United States will one day have to leave Iraq,” said Al-Jassem. And the Iranians also know they will be around long after that. Stay tuned.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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