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Waiting for a US-Iran handshake

Iran's diplomatic elite believe that the time has come to lead the region.

By Iason Athanasiadis / February 27, 2008

Tehran, Iran

Alireza is an unassuming 20-something Iranian. He works as a producer for Iran's state broadcaster. But he is no ordinary Islamic Republic civil servant.

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Alireza returned to Iran two years ago, after growing up in New York and studying at an elite Canadian university. His bilingual ability in English and Farsi, fluent Arabic, and good government connections will serve him well in the evolving Islamic Republic of the 21st century.

He is, ultimately, a symbolic face of Iran's diplomatic future. And if Iran's growing regional clout compels Washington years from now to offer Tehran allied status, Alireza could quite possibly be part of the handshake that confirms the deal.

Sitting in a plush traditional restaurant in Tehran's upscale Vanak Square one rainy afternoon last month, Alireza, who preferred that his last name not be published, reflected on Iran's regional rise.

Iranian military speedboats had recently come within firing range of US warships in the Persian Gulf, nearly provoking an international incident. The Pentagon backed down after reports of early combative rhetoric and revealed that the Iranian Navy had not threatened to "blow up" the US ships as originally claimed.

Senior Iranian military officials viewed the incident as a tactical victory that enabled them to project their power in the Persian Gulf. Beyond the diplomatic accolade of rhetorically outmaneuvering Washington, many Iranian military strategists were elated by their performance in close proximity to US warships, feeling it vindicated their asymmetrical "swarming" strategy whereby dozens of speedboats surround larger, heavily armored boats.

"We're battling might with slight," Alireza said, conveying the euphoria felt in higher ranks.

Iran's diplomatic elites assert that the time has come for their country to lead the region. With oil receipts at a record high, the Middle East's third most advanced military after Israel and Turkey, and unique geopolitical positioning between the energy hotbeds of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, Shiite-led Iran is at its strategic strongest in 30 years.

At the launching of an Iranian rocket this month, President Ahmadinejad even ventured to say, "We need to have an active and influential presence in space."

What was briefly dubbed the Sunni Axis, designed to counteract the Shiite Crescent, has collapsed in an outbreak of diplomatic overtures by Sunni-majority states Saudi Arabia and Egypt toward Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad will make his first visit to Iraq in March.