AS with people, negative national reputations, once formed, are difficult to change even when the behavior which created those reputations changes.
Iran is painfully discovering this reality. Despite a steady, moderate, and pragmatic trend in its domestic and international policies during the last three years, Iran still finds itself suspect, especially in the United States. Indeed, even the most natural Iranian efforts to rebuild its shattered economy and its devastated military are interpreted with alarm as signs of a resurgent expansionist thrust from Transcaucasia to the African continent and as a serious threat to US interests.
Yet as Iran discovers the heavy price of past mistakes, the US also runs the risk that by allowing past experience to color its perceptions of current realities it will commit damaging policy mistakes.
In recent weeks alarm bells have been ringing about Iran's defense buildup and its ambitions in the former Soviet-Asian republics. Yet in neither case does reality match the fears expressed by US officials.
In military terms, Iran's forces were devastated by the revolution of 1979, the war with Iraq, and the US-led arms embargo. Militarily, it is weaker than all of its neighbors.
Figures in the "Military Balance 1991-92," published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, illustrate this. Egypt, for instance, has 3,200 tanks and 288 fighter bombers of the most modern type, including F-16s, Mirages, and Migs. Saudi Arabia has nearly 700 tanks and 253 of the Pime combat aircraft, plus sophisticated air-defense systems. Turkey has close to 4,000 tanks, 425 combat aircraft, plus armored helicopters and missiles. Pakistan has 2,000 tanks and 327 combat aircra ft, including F-16s and Mirages.
Iran currently has less than 700 mostly antiquated tanks and 213 old combat aircraft, a significant portion of which are not serviceable. Even if all the new Soviet-made aircraft are delivered and all the Iraqi aircraft which arrived during the Persian Gulf war are made operational - not a very likely prospect - Iran's Air Force would not be a match for its neighbors.
In terms of military spending, Iran's neighbors far exceed it. This year Saudi Arabia is spending $18 billion and Kuwait $10 billion on new military purchases. Egypt, Turkey, and other countries also have ambitious military modernization plans. But Iran, in view of its enormous reconstruction needs and limited financial resources, has only allocated $10 billion over a five-year period for new military purchases.
IN the meantime, Iran has serious security concerns along its borders. To begin with, Iran's problems with Iraq are not over; there is no peace treaty. Although the departing United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar attributed responsibility for starting the Iran-Iraq war to Iraq, and although Security Council Resolution 598 provides for reparations, Iran has no hope of getting them. Moreover, Iran remembers the financial and military assistance of Arab states, including Egypt and Jordan,
to Iraq during eight years of war. Iran cannot help but feel threatened by their military buildup and uncertain of their future behavior.
In addition, there is the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the risk of conflict in the newly independent republics, which could spill over into Iran.
The reemergence of Pan Turkism and talk of creating a united Turkistan from the Crimea to Sinkiang are clear threats to Iran's territorial integrity. In fact, Iran's efforts to establish a presence in these republics stems primarily from concerns for its own security.
By the same token, Iran's role in support of US policy during the Persian Gulf war, its efforts to improve relations with Persian Gulf Arab states, and its role in gaining the release of US hostages are forgotten. No doubt these acts were in Iran's own self-interest, and no one owes gratitude. Nevertheless, if the Western response to positive developments in Iran is exaggerated fears about its intentions and the erection of new barriers to its gradual reintegration into the international community, there
is risk of stalling or even reversing the positive trends. In the months and years to come, Iran must work to regain the trust of its neighbors and the international community. But this will not be easy if others find it convenient to Iran as the new embodiment of evil.
An isolated and encircled Iran would be much more dangerous, especially if events in the Middle East worsen - always a possibility. Then it may be too late to influence Iranian events in a positive direction. During the 1980s, the US and the West exaggerated the Iranian threat and refused to recognize emerging changes in Iran.
The result was Saddam Hussein and the war of 1990. It would be tragic to make the same mistake again.