Iran Feels Hemmed In by Tough U.S. Rhetoric

Times Staff Writer

Amir Mohebian is a bespectacled Islamic editor fond of analogies, such as this one concerning relations between the United States and Iran: "We will not grow closer anytime soon. The U.S. is the wolf; Iran is the lamb. Why would the lamb invite the wolf in to eat him?"

Iran's political class reverberates with intrigue and dark fables over the country's long- estranged relationship with Washington. The specter of a U.S.-led war against neighboring Iraq, American support of Israel and Iran's move to expand its nuclear program have worsened an atmosphere that was badly damaged a year ago when President Bush counted this nation as part of an "axis of evil."

That remark stunned the ruling elite here as suspicions mounted that the U.S., with military forces spread throughout Afghanistan to Iran's east and the Persian Gulf to the west, was out to topple unfriendly regimes and control the flow of Middle East oil. As thousands more American troops head for the Gulf region, Iran feels isolated by a U.S. administration whose rhetoric Muslims believe is as harsh and threatening to them as the anti-Western furor whipped up by fundamentalist Islamic clerics is to Americans.

"Will the U.S. turn its guns on us after Iraq? Maybe not, but everything is possible," said Mohebian, editor of Resalat, an influential newspaper among conservative clerics controlling much of the government. "The U.S.'s unilateralism cannot be accepted. This is a new century and we must negotiate with one another for a new world. But the U.S. wants to be the uni-power."

"I don't see any positive signs between President Bush and Iran's clerics," said Davoud Bavand, a member of Iran's mission at the United Nations in the 1970s. "After the removal of [Iraqi President Saddam] Hussein, it will improve things for Iran. But what will develop in Baghdad? A religious government? A military government? The shadow of American military might will raise interesting questions for us.

"The U.S. won't invoke armed action against Iran, but it will exert other pressures for change," he added. "It's really a psychological war."

Iran's newspapers are full of stories concerning "plots" and "enemy spies" manipulated by Western intelligence agencies. Many conservatives believe that once American forces enter Baghdad, they will be entrenched in the region and orchestrate the fall of the Iranian government. Economists here fear that U.S. control of Iraq -- even for a short time -- would push down oil prices and create chaos in this nation's oil-dependent economy, which is already battered by high unemployment and sluggish growth.

"Some Iranians panic over a U.S. presence in Iraq," said one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity. "But others are taking a longer view. Iranians don't talk about it much, but there's a lot of them" silently supporting any U.S. effort to depose Hussein.

"In the long run," the diplomat added, "Iran really has no choice but to improve relations with Washington. This country needs billions and billions of dollars in foreign investment."

The public animosity between the two governments, however, can sometimes be likened to a game of retaliation. For example, U.S. authorities have been interrogating and fingerprinting people of Middle Eastern descent, including Iranians living in California, as part of the war on terrorism. Iran responded several weeks ago by fingerprinting and questioning American journalists entering the country.

The chasm between the two nations emerged in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution delivered the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. The 1997 election of reformer Mohammad Khatami as president suggested that relations might improve as diplomatic back channels were opened and President Clinton lifted symbolic economic sanctions on carpets and pistachios.

However, the ruling clerics limited Khatami's agenda and the U.S. grew more frustrated. By the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration had concluded that the Iranian president did not possess the skills to significantly reform the hard-line Islamist government.

Khatami has his own criticisms of the U.S. Last month, he compared Washington's foreign policy to the fundamentalist religious views of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.

"God's religion today," he said of Islam, "is lying between the two blades of the same scissors: One blade is the Islam of the Taliban, while the other is trying to impose war, hatred, animosity and imperialism on the whole world under the pretext of fighting the Islam of the Taliban."

Iran quietly aided the U.S. war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and efforts to track down Al Qaeda operatives. But Iran's history of supporting militant groups that attack Israel put it at odds with Bush's global war on militant extremism. Iran loathes America's close relationship with Israel. Many government officials and clerics here say that until the Palestinian quest for statehood is fulfilled, the animosity against the U.S. will not diminish.

According to many analysts, Bush's "axis of evil" comment, which lumped together Iran, Iraq and North Korea, undercut Washington's intentions for this nation by bolstering fundamentalist clerics and weakening a democratic movement supported by students, intellectuals and a growing number of working-class Iranians.

"Clinton was getting smarter about Iran and he understood the difficulties faced by Khatami and the dire straits of the economy," said Isa Saharkhiz, editor of the Iranian magazine Sun. "But then came Sept. 11 and Bush's 'axis of evil.' This strengthened the conservatives and hobbled Khatami. Bush is really despised here for that. How can we improve our political and social development if we don't have foreign investment?"

The tension between the countries simmered again in December when Iran announced that it would finish construction -- with Russian help -- of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. Iran claims that the plant will produce energy for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. maintains that the facility is part of a secret weapons program. If so, according to U.S. officials, it will further destabilize a volatile region where nuclear arms are held by Israel, Pakistan, India and possibly Iraq.

"It is over-exaggerated that Iran wants access to weapons of mass destruction," Bavand said. "We have accepted verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Bavand noted that Iran needs to strengthen its conventional arsenal if it is to become a regional power that can defend itself "in a tough neighborhood."

"Like swords hanging over the head of Iran, our neighbors are not responsible" nations, he said. "They are sick. Our tanks and conventional weapons are outmoded. We need more short- and intermediate-range missiles."

The Western diplomat said Iran's battle with the U.S. will be more about words than weapons. "Iran's Islamic Revolution has failed in every way," the diplomat said. "All that's left of it is anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment, and if you take away their anti-Americanism, they have nothing left to say."

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