TEHRAN, IRAN — Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 had already been bloody and significant. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had led the overthrow of the pro-West shah, his followers had opened the torture chambers of his hated security forces, and American diplomats were taken hostage.
But then came the order: Export the revolution. The result has electrified the Mideast, with an impact even greater than the landmark Israel-Egypt peace deal signed that year at Camp David.
Its legacy continues today, sowing fear among Iran's neighbors and commanding the loyalty of Islamic "revolutionaries" from Algeria to Afghanistan.
Portraits of a grandfatherly Khomeini long ago disappeared, replaced by stern shots of a Khomeini whose deeply lined face is set defiantly against the American "Great Satan."
No other country - not even Israel - is such a critical or unknown quantity for the defense strategies of Mideast nations as Iran. The behavior of Iran's theocracy will affect the region for decades.
But is Iran a diabolical threat to world peace, as so often portrayed in the West? Are the ruling clergy, or mullahs, bent on controlling the flow of oil and expanding their territory with nuclear weapons and terrorism?
The landslide election in May of relatively liberal Mohammed Khatami may signal a change in Iran, though the US is taking a wait-and-see approach. In late 1992, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin kicked off a campaign to convince the US that Iran was on a "megalomaniacal" quest to be a "Middle East empire."
Iran, though, has hardly helped its case. It opposes the US-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process; hundreds of exiled opponents of the regime have been assassinated; and there are signs it is trying to build nuclear weapons.
For the State Department today, Iran is the "premier" sponsor of terrorism worldwide.
But Iranians counter that their wishes are the same as American ones: peace in the region and the free flow of oil. Iran has no expansionist aims and wants peaceful coexistence, they say, and the devastating 1988 defeat in the Iran-Iraq war brought an end to dreams of exporting the revolution. Still, Iran is deemed so evil in some Washington circles that even Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been posited as a "useful" buffer against the spread of Iran's radical Islam.
"It seems this image of Iran as a monster in the region suits US interests," says a political adviser to Iran's government. "After the cold war, the US must find a new enemy to justify a $250-billion defense budget."
Iranians say Iraq's invasion of Kuwait clearly identified "who the real enemy is" in the Gulf. Iran has, in fact, gone out of its way to show that it is exporting peace. It has hosted peace talks for battling Afghans, Kurds, Tajiks, and Central Asian factions fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. And to keep on the good side of Russia, it has pointedly not backed Muslim separatists in Chechnya.
Still, Iran's military modernization appears aimed at controlling the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf's oil tap.
Iran has fitted 20 patrol boats with Chinese cruise missiles, US officials say, and has bought three Kilo-class submarines from Russia, tripled the number of missiles on its Gulf coast, and can deploy antiship mines. For oil-dependent Western economies, this is a direct threat. The US "will take immediate actions in terms of defense of the Strait," said Gen. Binford Peay, head of US Central Command recently.
The warning was countered in June in Tehran. "Let me send a clear message to the Americans: the Persian Gulf is our region," said Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai, head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. "Iran will never start a war. But if Americans ... decide to attack us, we will turn the region into a slaughterhouse for them."
The impression often given by news reports - and encouraged by Iran - is that it is engaged in a massive arms build-up. This is inaccurate, some analysts say.
Iran's defense budget for 1996 was declared $2.6 billion, but some say the true figure is one-third that. Current defense spending can barely make up the losses of the Iran-Iraq war. The economy is also struggling: Iran's per capita oil income has slumped to $200, down from $1,300 in 1976.
Still, extensive land, sea, and air military exercises do little to assuage local fear. "Iran is creating a situation where conflict is unavoidable," says Jamal al-Suwaidi, director of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi. "They say pragmatists are in power, but it is extremists who are winning and dictate policy."
Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey all accuse Iran of secretly supporting Muslim extremists to overthrow their pro-West regimes. Bahrain is claimed by some hard-liners to be Iran's 14th province. And despite an ongoing tussle with the United Arab Emirates, Iran has deployed missiles on three disputed islands. Though the UAE has no land border with Iran, it has bought 400 French tanks to "defend" itself.
Western diplomats here are divided about Iran's true intentions. One says "Persians only try on a sense of dominance, but they are pragmatic." Another deems that Iran's reviving pride in its culture and power "exudes the intention to dominate the Gulf politically."
The confusion centers on Iran's cultural and religious role. Iranians are largely Persian, historical rivals with Arabs. Though all are Muslim, Iran is made up of Islam's Shiite minority.
Shia communities in Lebanon, Saudi, and Bahrain consider Ayatollah Khomeini the highest spiritual authority, while other Shias in Iraq and Kuwait revere Khomeini more subtly. Iranian ideologues have also been painted with the broad brush of extremism, though their policies are much more divergent.
Iranians fear Saudi Arabia's strict brand of Islam, for example, and also reject the extremist Taliban militia in Afghanistan.
Turning the tables on US accusations, Iran's parliament speaker Ali Nateq Nouri - the conservative front-runner who was defeated in the May presidential elections - noted in an interview that Iran had remained neutral in the Gulf War, and sent experts to help control Kuwait's 800 flaming oil wells. "Iran was the first to condemn this aggression. We extinguished some of their oil well fires and helped Kuwait's war-stricken people," he said.
"Could you think of acting more beautifully than this?"